The Earmarks Paradox

Despite the current distaste for member-directed spending, lawmakers might soon look back on it as a bygone way to assemble a majority.

As House conservatives push for ever-deeper spending cuts, a tough question confronts GOP leaders: What sweetener will convince their rank and file to swallow bitter budget medicine?

In the past, that sweetener would have been earmarks, the local pork barrel projects that lawmakers could trumpet to constituents back home. Now earmarks are gone, or at least drastically curtailed, banished first by Republicans and more recently by President Obama and Senate Democrats.

Some argue that earmarks will now simply go underground, and that lawmakers will channel federal money to pet projects through federal grants, tax credits, and other avenues. No doubt the business of bringing home the bacon will continue, and Washington lobbyists who’ve built a lucrative industry out of earmarks are already reassuring clients that federal money lives on.

“We’re certainly not stopping the work that we’re doing,” said Stu Van Scoyoc, president and CEO of Van Scoyoc Associates, which runs a whole affiliate focused on federal grants and funds. “We’re still representing the people we represent. And we’re finding that it’s difficult, but that people are open to meeting with us and to hearing our concerns.”

But even Van Scoyoc admits that securing federal grants, for one, is “very difficult” even in the best of times. With discretionary spending cuts all but inevitable, winning federal grant money will be harder still. Added Van Scoyoc: “I think we’re in a very difficult environment.”

Van Scoyoc is one of many lobbyists, lawmakers, and political observers wondering how Washington is going to wrestle a federal budget to the ground without earmarks, which had become a central if controversial tool in the appropriations process. Earmarks represent only about one-half of 1 percent of the budget, but in recent years they’ve played an outsized role in the appropriations dance.

“You need certain tools to make legislation flow, and this was a great tool,” said former Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., now a government affairs counselor at the law firm of K&L Gates. Walsh should know: He served 16 years on the House Appropriations Committee and chaired four Appropriations subcommittees while on Capitol Hill. Earmarks “always get criticized,” Walsh added. “But if you’re in the room making sausage, you need to round up votes.”

Indeed, research suggests that “when members get an earmark, they are more likely to vote for the appropriations bill,” said Diana Evans, a professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut and author of “Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress.”

To earmarks critics, that’s precisely the problem. Earmarks added up to only $16.5 billion in fiscal 2010, a sum that former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who co-chaired Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, has derided as a “sparrow belch in the midst of a typhoon.” Yet they arguably have skewed federal spending toward influential lawmakers, clogged the legislative calendar, and invited quasi pay-to-play bartering with lobbyists dangling campaign contributions.

The culture of earmarks is so ingrained in Washington that no one really expects them to die out completely. When Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, announced a two-year moratorium on earmarks this month, he specified only appropriations earmarks, noted Steve Ellis, vice president of programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “That doesn’t remove the possibility that there would be authorization or tax or tariff-related earmarks,” said Ellis.

Lawmakers who want to steer money toward their states and districts can still put in requests to federal agencies, a process called “phone-marking” or “letter-marking.”

They also can write bills that fail to name a pet project but that apply narrowly to only one funding recipient. Some lawmakers will also fight to preserve money for highways, water resources projects, and controversial weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter alternate engine—battles that will now move to the fore.

“Money will find a way, and it will be far less transparent,” said Walsh. He added: “It’s part of the genetic makeup of a legislator to try to find a way to help your community.”

The Inouye moratorium, moreover, is just that—a temporary hiatus, not a ban. Walsh is one of a coalition of lobbyists, budget hawks, and good government advocates who had set out to forestall the earmarks ban with a package of reforms. These included a transparent earmarks database and limits on earmarks to campaign contributors.

Despite briefings with House, Senate, and White House leaders, the reform package collapsed under political pressures, acknowledged Walsh. Still, he’s hopeful that such reforms will be “waiting in the wings” should the political winds shift again.

For some lobbying firms that helped create the earmarks boom, such as Cassidy & Associates, the moratorium already represents the end of an era. The firm has lost its chief executive and let go of some 20 percent of its staff amid a restructuring.

But lobbyists aren’t the only ones disappointed to see earmarks go. Many lawmakers have supported the ban only very reluctantly. GOP House leaders, in particular, might soon wish they had a few more carrots to hand out with their budget sticks. Said Evans: “I don’t think we’re going to see an end of targeted expenditures.”

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