CQ Roll Call: Appropriations Lobbying Thrives Despite Earmark Ban

By: Kate Ackley

The congressional earmark ban may have lobbed a hit at K Street’s appropriations practices, but if such a prohibition was intended to shut down the sector entirely, it’s failing.

Lobbyists who work the Appropriations panels on behalf of clients are pushing policies and pressing for funding targets, instead of earmarks, as lawmakers craft spending bills.

“There are a lot of ways you can employ the appropriations process to have a positive result for clients,” said Jim Richards, a partner at Cornerstone Government Affairs who worked for two chairmen of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture.

With Republicans in charge of Congress, the appropriations sector this year has already become a vehicle for lawmakers to threaten the Obama administration’s policies on everything from opening up ties with Cuba to environmental regulations. Late last year, financial sector lobbyists scored a big win by getting a rollback of Dodd-Frank swaps regulations included in an omnibus spending package (PL 113-235).

“I think with an administration with an aggressive regulatory agenda, the appropriations process is the front lines,” said John Scofield, a partner in the S-3 Group. “The power of the purse strings is real.”

But, he added, “It’s not perfect, and it’s ugly sometimes.”

When earmarks were gold on K Street, many of the clients that dominated the sector were cities and municipalities seeking those pots of member-directed cash for specific projects. But as scandals over earmarks gave way to the five-year ban, more of the clients keeping tabs on appropriators’ work are major corporations.

Clients prize getting some language into a funding bill, no matter how innocuous.

“For corporate clients whose boards and CEOs are very metric-driven, it’s a way to put points on the board,” Scofield said. “This is a way you can show your board or your boss, we got these couple sentences in a report that encourages them to do things that would help us.”

Richards said that where clients and lawmakers once focused on earmarks, now their attention is on programmatic funding. One client, the American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, wants to protect funding levels in the Agriculture spending bill for research and extension programs, Richards said.

“Your first priority is ‘do no harm,’” Richards said, meaning no cuts. “But you’re still scrambling for any type of increase once you do no harm.”

Richards said he expects continued funding fights this year over coal and air quality regulations and the fate of prisoners at Guantánamo, as well as more potential Dodd-Frank changes, among other potential skirmishes.

Because the funding bills are still in the works, lobbyists say they are reluctant to discuss the specifics of what their clients want. But appropriations and federal budget issues are the top sector of all lobbying issues, according to a compilation of lobbying disclosures by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the first months of the year, 2,500 clients reported working on such issues.

Scofield, a former aide on the House Appropriations panel, said appropriations work at his lobby firm represents a little less than half of the shop’s overall revenue, which was nearly $1.2 million for the first quarter. “With almost any corporate client, you’re spending some time talking about the appropriations process,” he said.

Jim Dyer, a lobbyist at the Podesta Group and one-time staff director on House Appropriations, said that working the panels still has many applications for clients.

“Obviously, it’s a different world than it was 10 years ago,” he said, adding that the different House and Senate bans on earmarks are difficult to interpret or understand. Still, he said, he has clients that want to make sure there is money in a specific agency’s pot that they could apply for through such programs as competitive grants. He urges lawmakers to craft their guidelines to the agencies in ways that are consistent with his clients' capabilities.

“We really are out here in this Avatar world trying to get around a ban that we can’t explain or define,” he said.