Obama administration draft memo could shed light on ‘lettermarking’

Lobbyists already hamstrung by the earmark bans in Congress could be marginalized even more if the Obama administration approves a draft memo that would require agencies to disclose lawmakers’ requests for federal funds.

Earmark bans have been instituted in the House and Senate this year, but the moratorium on the practice has not prevented lawmakers from seeking federal funds for favored projects. 

Lawmakers often contact federal agencies directly in an attempt to influence where money is spent, a practice often dubbed “lettermarking” or “phonemarking.”

The messages from members of Congress are not typically made public, though the press sometimes obtains them through Freedom of Information Act requests. Several lawmakers have been embarrassed when their letters asking for federal funds were disclosed under FOIA, undercutting their stated positions of wanting to cut government spending.

The draft memo from the Obama administration could make disclosure of lettermarking and phonemarking routine — a possibility welcomed by watchdog groups, but feared by lobbyists who make their living off the appropriations process.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, praised the administration’s plan and said there is no reason for the requests to be kept secret.

“If a lawmaker or staff wants to make their opinion known to the executive branch about this, that or the other project or provision, then they should stand by that opinion and make it known,” Ellis told The Hill. 

“The fight against parochial, special-interest spending is one that we are winning incrementally. I don’t care if lawmakers are less likely to write if they were disclosed, because then I’m sure they shouldn’t have been writing them in the first place,” Ellis said.

The National Journal reported Sunday that the Obama administration has begun to circulate a memo on Capitol Hill that would have all federal agencies release letters from lawmakers that direct agency officials what projects to fund.

“Too often, federal agencies are pressured informally to show special favor to certain parties or interests in the course of agency decisionmaking concerning federal projects, programs, contracts, and grants. … Like legislated earmarks, these pressures on agency decisionmaking also undermine the neutral application of merit-based and competitive criteria for the allocation of federal resources,” the memo states, according to the National Journal.

As various earmark bans have taken hold in recent years, K Street has adapted by mastering the competitive grant system used for federal funds. One technique that has been used by lobbyists is to have a lawmaker vouch for their client’s project in a letter to the funding agency, especially if the project would benefit the lawmaker’s constituents.

Under the draft memo, those letters would be disclosed and searchable on the Internet within 30 days of their receipt by the agency. That might make lawmakers shy about defending various projects.

“It will make members of Congress and their staff think twice about writing letters, making calls, holding meetings with federal agencies where pending grants, loans, contracts or cooperative agreements are being decided,” said one appropriations lobbyist.

The lobbyist compared the draft memo to the restrictions the administration placed on lobbyists when it came to stimulus funds. Those rules led several agency officials to minimize or avoid all contact with K Street as they worked to implement the economic recovery package.

Press reports have suggested lettermarking is still used by lawmakers, and the practice has likely become more prevalent because of the earmark ban.

“The moratorium has certainly reduced the practice of earmarks, but it is easily sidestepped through lettermarking and phonemarking practices, which appear to be fairly common, but no one really knows for sure because these are not publicly disclosed,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

Holman noted the draft memo builds on an executive order by President George W. Bush that ordered agencies not to accept lawmakers’ funding requests unless they were authorized by legislation passed by Congress. Holman said that he feels that the order has been ignored by the agencies, so he hopes Obama is more aggressive with ensuring compliance with the draft memo.

Others are worried that the draft memo would center more of the government’s spending power in the executive branch, rather than on Capitol Hill.

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his group is concerned that if the memo were issued, it would lead to constituents not asking for congressional help.

“What concerns the American League of Lobbyists about this proposal is its potential to deter constituents from asking their federal-elected officials to support their needs. That is the right of every American that is guaranteed by the Constitution,” Marlowe said.