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Appropriators Still Hold Power Despite Austerity

Appropriators may not wield the clout they once did, but when it comes to lobbying for federal dollars, they’re still a top ticket in town.

Take last year’s fiscal 2014 omnibus package, which came to be known as a “lobbyist Christmas” for all the carve-outs and special lawmaker priorities it funded. That $1.1 trillion measure, enacted in January, brought appropriators back to center stage after years languishing in the wings while the parties battled over ideology, fiscal policy and the budget.

To be sure, a half a decade of belt tightening and the 2010 earmark ban has winnowed appropriators’ power. Congressional leaders have had a harder time riding herd on members without being able to trade earmarks for favors.

And K Street lobby shops that relied on securing earmarks in annual spending bills have also suffered, or at least had to refocus their lobbying efforts on federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget, which allocate dollars to specific projects and programs after lawmakers approve broader top-line sums.

Despite those tactical shifts, many lobbyists say they still focus on the House and Senate Appropriations committees whenever they want to get something done on Capitol Hill. For those lobbyists, the fiscal 2015 spending cycle will mark a return to form.

“Yes, we spend a lot of time in the agencies, chasing largely competitive grants and opportunities for funding for our clients. But all that money starts somewhere, and it starts with the appropriators,” said Jon Bouker, the co-leader of the government relations practice at the Arent Fox law and lobbying firm.

“We continue to work the appropriations committees unabated because we need to make sure that the money is there in those accounts for the agencies to be able to dole out the money,” he said. “Also to show there is political support for those accounts and those agencies.”

Somewhat ironically, budget austerity and the earmark ban may have concentrated power with appropriators. While they can’t dole out earmarks under a more lax budget environment, appropriators control what money is still available under tight budget caps. They can set priorities and determine trade-offs between programs, all under current law restrictions.

Perhaps most significant is their ability to set spending levels for federal agencies. Appropriators can funnel more money to programs they support and draw down and cancel money for accounts they oppose.

While they can no longer direct funding to specific projects that aren’t included as part of a White House budget request — a critical distinction that is one reason lobbyists are focused more on federal agencies — they can create and fund competitive grants at government agencies and tailor them to fit particular types of projects.

“Anytime a member can fashion or shape or increase or cut accounts in the budget, there’s an element of power there,” said Jim Dyer, a former Republican staff director and clerk for the House Appropriations panel and now a lobbyist at the Podesta Group. “And as long as we continue to believe in the Congressional power of the purse, the power will still be there.”

Securing committee report language and spending bill policy riders, which encourage or discourage agencies in the carrying out of particular activities, also has become big business for lawmakers and lobbyists alike in recent years, as work on congressional authorization committees has dried up.

Protecting Interests

The Appropriations committees also have become a critical backstop for lobbyists to shield favored programs from cuts proposed by administration budget requests.

“Organizations still need representation in the nation’s capital to protect their interests and make sure that their program isn’t defunded,” said Mike Fulton, president of the Washington office of the Arnold Agency, a public relations and communications company.

In the years since the earmark ban in 2010, outside lobbying of the Appropriations committees has moved further behind closed doors, according to James Walsh, a former House Republican who chaired multiple Appropriations subcommittees. He’s now at the K&L Gates law and lobbying firm.

“The power is still there. The process becomes less transparent now, I think, because earmarks are gone,” Walsh said. “But nonetheless, Congress, if it exercises its power, has the power.”

Some lobbyists say their work has become far more defensive under the tight discretionary spending limits of recent years. Because of that, the definition of an appropriations “victory” has changed: While securing an earmark or a large increase in program spending used to be considered a success, now it’s an accomplishment to protect spending for favored programs at existing levels.

“One of the most compelling questions asked when you go in to ask for appropriations is, ‘What would you have me cut to fund your request?’ ” Fulton said. “That’s a very fair and difficult question.”

Frozen Funding for Fiscal 2015

Since lobbyists still rely heavily on influencing discretionary budgets, some say the fiscal 2015 appropriations cycle is providing a welcome change of pace because, for the first time in years, the Appropriations committees are not planning large cuts.

The December budget deal rolled back automatic spending cuts that had been mandated under the Budget Control Act, thereby freeing up about $19 billion in extra discretionary money for lawmakers to spend in 2015.

That leaves the House and Senate Appropriations committees, led respectively by Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers and Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, in charge of distributing $1.014 trillion across federal agencies.

“There’s a little more wiggle room this year, which makes a difference,” said Diane J. Blagman, a senior director in Greenberg Traurig’s government law and policy practice.

Because the December budget deal largely keeps defense and domestic budgets flat between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, Blagman expects the lobbying pendulum to “swing back a bit more to the Hill this year.”

“But you still can’t forget about talking to the agencies,” she said.

With the coming midterm elections, appropriations bills will almost certainly be the only bills signed into law in 2014. That will make them vital to members of Congress trying to enact policy changes, and just as vital to lobbyists trying to secure more money and protect budget items.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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