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Lobbyists Adjusting to Environment

With the Senate expected to take up its eight remaining spending bills after lawmakers return from their recess, appropriations lobbyists continue to rue the new Democratic regime that has brought increased scrutiny to the earmarking process.

“Being an appropriations lobbyist is a lot tougher than it used to be,— a Republican lobbyist said. “The dollar amounts are significantly decreased from previous years.—

“Earmarks have become this really bad word, especially among grass-roots voters … the Bridge to Nowhere’ becomes emblematic of every single earmark, whether it is worthwhile or not,— the lobbyist continued. “Members are concerned about everything that comes through their office that is made public … you see more and more Members who are swearing off earmarks altogether.—

Bowing to public pressure over the controversial Alaskan bridge and other questionable spending requests in recent years, lawmakers in 2009 agreed to post their earmark requests on their Congressional Web sites. The requirement, according to lobbyists interviewed for this article, scared Members and corporate executives, who are afraid to stumble into a perceived boondoggle in a down economy.

“They are beginning to tie their hands: the more they reform the earmark process, the more they weaken themselves and lessen their authority. You’re finding that it’s harder to get things done because of the rules they have imposed on themselves on earmarks,— one lobbyist said. “If they want to go in there and fix something — right a wrong — they can’t because of the rules they put upon themselves.—

“The companies are very frustrated … you had some office deadlines as early as Feb. 15 for requests, but we didn’t have a budget until April,— the lobbyist continued. “We had to submit everything without actually knowing what the budget will look like.—

According to CQ Budget Tracker, a part of the CQ-Roll Call Group, the House has passed all 12 of its appropriations bills for fiscal 2010. In the Senate, only four spending bills have passed: Agriculture, Energy and water, Homeland Security and the legislative branch.

Eight appropriations bills await the Senate this fall: Commerce, Justice and science; Defense; financial services; Interior and environment; Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; State and foreign operations; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

Fiscal 2010 begins Oct. 1.

With Democrats in charge, one lobbyist said privately that the downtown community originally anticipated an uptick in spending handouts by lawmakers this year. The thinking was that the ruling party, which took control of the White House in January following two years in charge of Congress, was less hostile to pet projects than the GOP.

What lobbyists claimed they didn’t expect was how the new disclosure requirements would shame lawmakers and corporate executives into looking elsewhere for government funding. The White House, too, has been more protective of keeping the purse strings in the hands of the executive branch, making appropriations lobbyists fight for cash on multiple fronts.

“A lot of appropriations lobbyists thought it might get a lot easier but with the increased transparency, Members are not necessarily comfortable with the public eye on earmarks that they request and, therefore, it’s getting more difficult to get earmarks,— a lobbyist said. “Agencies and departments hate earmarks because it takes control away from them doling out the money [and] those folks report to the White House.—

“The White House doesn’t want to give away any more power or money any more than the agencies do, so they’re going to come out against earmarks as well,— the lobbyist continued.

But not all appropriations lobbyists agree. GolinHarris lobbyist Michael Fulton said Congressional leaders urged downtown early on to set the bar low this year. In contrast to prior years, Fulton also said the new disclosure requirements mean lobbyists and their clients are no longer left guessing whether a request was even made.

“We have counseled from the outset of the need to be austere, that there would be a reduction in the number of projects,— Fulton said. “Transparency has been positive.—

“Lobbyists and our clients now know what Members put forward. Before [2009] you submitted your request to Congressional staff, you filled out all of the forms, you met with the Members, you had support letters, you had meetings and all kinds of activities to support your project,— he continued. “And you never knew whether your project got submitted to the committee or not. Now those are on a Web site and you can search it and our clients can search it.—

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