Keep the earmark requests coming, say some lawmakers to constituents

Some lawmakers are still seeking funding for their constituents, despite the voluntary earmark bans that have taken hold in both chambers of Congress.

In letters and e-mails obtained by The Hill, lawmakers asked constituents for their earmark requests this year and said they will seek alternative means of funding them due to the prohibition on pet projects. 

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Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), for example, wrote a Jan. 31 letter to constituents — beginning with “Dear Friends” — saying he disagreed with House Republican leaders and President Obama about banning earmarks. The lawmaker said he would pursue “alternative strategies” to find federal funds for projects in his district.

“I disagree with this decision because it prevents full and open congressional consideration of many worthwhile project proposals critical to the health, safety and economic well-being of the people of our district. As your representative in Congress, I am committed to working with you to pursue alternative strategies to support critical infrastructure improvements in our communities,” Thompson wrote in the letter.

Thompson asked constituents to send in letters by Feb. 25 describing what projects in their communities are in need of federal funds.

“I do not know if we will be successful, but I do know that we need to be ready,” Thompson wrote.

Valerie Brown, supervisor of Sonoma County, Calif.’s, 1st district, said she appreciated the congressman’s efforts, though it was unclear what success his constituents’ funding requests would have in Washington this year. 

“Our Congress members are really interested in what our top priorities are for their districts,” Brown said. “It’s unclear how that list of priorities will be used in this Congress given the fact it has been made clear that there will be no earmarks.”

In written responses to The Hill’s questions, Thompson said that he “firmly believe[s] that local communities, not Washington bureaucrats, are in the best position to identify projects that will enhance safety, create jobs and improve our quality of life.”

The congressman said he was working with communities in his district to help find other funding options.

“Now that the earmark ban is in place, one option is to have communities apply for federal grants. My office has been happy to help local communities as they navigate the application process, from determining eligibility to writing the grant proposal,” Thompson said.

Earmark bans in the House and Senate have confused lawmakers in both parties and changed Washington’s lobbying industry.

In years past, springtime was typically the busy season for earmarks as lawmakers and lobbyists scrambled to insert funding into appropriations bills before subcommittee markups.

But with the earmark bans now in place, both groups have had to find different ways to secure money for their clients and constituents.

One appropriations lobbyist said the prohibition on pet projects has boosted the value of K Street while making the spending process more opaque.

“This is a win for secret government,” said the lobbyist. “I can get money into these bills that no one will know about. You don’t need a name next to it anymore.”

Some lawmakers have still sought to find funding for projects, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Last month, the two senators — chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, respectively — asked their colleagues to submit requests for specific projects in the Water Resources Development Act.

Others on Capitol Hill are still wondering what an earmark is, exactly.

“I haven’t heard the definition of ‘earmark,’ ” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).

Johnson is trying to find federal funds for her constituents this year. In a March 8 letter to the Department of Education, the congresswoman asked that it “strongly consider” a grant application by the Education is Freedom Foundation because it serves many Dallas students who “have made a great impact in my congressional district.” 

Even though her signature is on the letter, Johnson said she was viewing it for the first time after The Hill provided a copy. Nevertheless, the congresswoman said she supports the project, adding she doesn’t “intend to stop asking.”

“I came here to support earmarks. If I don’t support earmarks, my district will get nothing then,” Johnson said. “If it comes across my desk and they are from my district and the request is fair, I will send a letter of support.”

Another appropriations lobbyist, Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Co., said he has seen more lawmakers this year write in to federal agencies asking them to consider specific grant applications due to the earmark bans.

“Other than the increase in volume of grant applications, there is nothing unusual about the process or the involvement of members of Congress in that process. As always, our clients make the grant request, and not the members,” Marlowe said.

Other lawmakers are seeking to help their constituents back home. A Feb. 24 e-mail sent from a legislative assistant to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to his former earmark recipients notes that despite the earmark bans, the senator wants to know how he can help Ohio this year.

“With that said, Sen. Brown wants to assist Ohioans in their pursuit of federal dollars for worthy projects. Your requests are still important and the office … will still be accepting requests,” said the e-mail, with the latter sentence boldfaced and underlined.

A spokeswoman for Brown said knowing his constituents’ funding requests will help the senator decide what to advocate for on Capitol Hill.

“Any requests that our office receives are used internally to help guide the senator as he advocates for programmatic funding levels or grant requests,” said Meghan Dubyak, Brown’s communications director, in an e-mail.

Steve Ellis, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said the lawmakers’ letters and e-mails are an “entirely predictable response to the moratorium on earmarks.” According to Ellis, lawmakers wish to remain relevant and will now try to 

“lettermark” — writing to federal agencies to influence them on how best to spend their funds.

“What is really going to be critical is if these lawmakers are going to work with the executive branch and Congress to create a merit-based system to award funds to the best projects instead of the ones with the most political muscle,” Ellis said. “That’s going to be the real solution here. It’s not going to be lettermarking or sugar pills to their constituents.”

Ellis said the Obama administration should disclose its correspondence with lawmakers who are attempting to 

lettermark projects, because such documents could be made available under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Anything that is official business should be the business of the country. All of this can be disclosed on the agencies’ websites,” Ellis said.

One appropriations lobbyist, however, said he doesn’t believe the predictions of widespread lettermarking will bear out this year.

Ex-Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), a former member of the House Appropriations Committee, suggested that GOP lawmakers would not have much recourse with a Democratic administration if they write agencies for funding.

“Republicans really don’t have the option of turning to this administration, while Democrats do. I don’t think a Republican would even consider it,” said Walsh, now a government-affairs counselor at K&L Gates.

In addition, he said, the stigma attached to earmarks remains so strong that most lawmakers will shy away from supporting pet projects this year, though not forever.

“People are real skittish about earmarks and about anything that resembles an earmark right now. They are going to wait for the profile of this issue to die down,” Walsh said. “Is it going to go away completely? I don’t think so.”