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Earmark Advocates Skeptical of Ban

Just days after House Democrats and Republicans began floating the idea of a one-year moratorium on earmarks, K Streeters seem convinced that there is no appetite in Congress to shut off the spigot for lawmakers’ pet projects.

As the March 19 deadline looms for House earmark requests, appropriations lobbyists say the power of the purse isn’t going anywhere because rank-and-file Members don’t want to give up an opportunity to bring back money to their districts before the midterm elections.

House Democrats were scheduled to huddle during a leadership meeting Tuesday evening. However, no movement on imposing an earmark moratorium had been made by press time.

“This comes up almost every year,” said Democrat Rich Gold, head of Holland & Knight’s government relations operation. “Something like 80 to 90 percent of the caucus is opposed to these” bans.

“If we’re having problems back home, it’s not over process or earmarks. It’s over substance,” Gold added.

Jim Dyer, head of Clark & Weinstock’s appropriations practice, agreed.

“It’s March and we don’t even know if there is going to be a budget resolution, and we’re having an academic exercise about whether or not the Congress giving up earmarking authority somehow could be a good thing,” Dyer said, indicating that Congress should be focused on the business at hand instead of hypothetical discussions on banning earmarks.

Even if the House moves to implement an earmark ban, it’s unlikely that the Senate would enact a similar policy, lobbyists say.

Still, K Streeters are making sure their clients realize they could have an unexpectedly bumpy ride through appropriations season.

Golin Harris’ Michael Fulton said he always tries to lower clients’ expectations that Members are going to fund their projects.

“We counsel all our clients [that] there are no guarantees and try to downplay expectations significantly both in the amount of dollars and the chance that we might get a project,” said Fulton, who represents nonprofit institutions.

Some lobbyists say that they wouldn’t be opposed to a ban as long as everybody is playing by the same rules.

“I don’t have a problem with it if all earmarks are wiped out and eliminated,” Fulton said. “The problem is if selective projects are eliminated and there are some getting earmarks and others not getting them.”

So far, only a handful of lawmakers have made it a policy to abstain from inserting pet projects into spending bills.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a chief advocate for banning earmarks, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter this week accompanied by a petition, which calls for Republicans to hold an immediate conference-wide meeting to huddle about an earmark moratorium.

The most recent calls by Republicans for an earmark freeze comes on the heels of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) bringing up the idea in a leadership meeting last week as a way for House Democrats to get ahead of their Republican counterparts, who have considered such a ban for years.

However, Democrats in the meeting did not reach a consensus about whether they will move forward with presenting a proposal to the Caucus.

And lobbyists say they are not surprised.

“Congress would be giving up their power and control for no reason,” said Michael Herson, head of American Defense International. “In the middle of a recession with nearly 10 percent unemployment, is a Member going to say, ‘I am not bringing money and projects back to the district, but please send me back’?”

Further, Herson said the argument by Members of Congress that it would save taxpayer cash is incorrect because the money is still part of the budget.

This isn’t the first time the House has threatened to close the earmark spigot. In 2007, most of the appropriations bills were stripped of nearly all Congressionally requested earmarks.

But that doesn’t mean those “earmarks” went away, according to lobbyists. That year, Members and the lobbyists who push for funding projects on behalf of clients turned their attention to federal agencies.

Bill Allison of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency, said that kind of activity is exactly why earmarks should remain in appropriations bills.

“The dangerous earmarkers are those going underground,” Allison said. “The real solution is to make them transparent.”

Instead of banning earmarks, Allison said Congress should focus on creating a centralized place for the public to see who is requesting earmarks and an easily navigable process for following an earmark from start to finish.

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