Lobbyists hitting up federal agencies as earmark rate drops

Some lobbyists are spending less time stalking members of Congress and more time reaching out to government bureaucrats as federal agencies regain some lost authority over spending.

Howard Marlowe, who represents a number of towns, cities and universities, said his firm has sought and won more government grants over the past two years than it had in the previous 25.

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One in five dollars Marlowe & Associates secures for its clients is now grant money. Just a few years ago, the firm relied entirely on congressional appropriations to meet client needs.

The shift in focus has elevated the prominence of a largely ignored cog in the advocacy business, the grant writer, while slightly diminishing the role of the lobbyist.

“We can do less lobbying with them than we can with Congress,” Marlowe said.

Critics of the current process would say that’s a good thing, but not Marlowe. Federal agency officials “have their own agenda,” and they operate less transparently than members of Congress, Marlowe said.

Appropriations lobbyists said three events have required that they pay more attention to federal agencies.

The congressional earmark has become something of a dirty word thanks to now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who lavished gifts on members and staff in return for favors for clients. 

Distributing money through targeted appropriations — earmarking — has hardly gone out of fashion entirely. Congress directed $18 billion in earmarks in fiscal 2008, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a fiscal watchdog. 

But the number of earmarks is well off the peak. TCS, which does an annual earmark tally, said the total monetary value of earmarks had fallen by 23 percent in the fiscal 2008 budget from fiscal 2005, a record year. 

“There has been so much more scrutiny on earmarks that you are seeing less of a feeding frenzy” on Capitol Hill, said Steve Ellis, vice president at TCS. 

Some big appropriations have gone through without the usual directives from Capitol Hill — none bigger than the massive $787 billion economic stimulus package Congress passed last year largely earmark-free. 

A chunk of that money was distributed through pre-existing formulas, but a large percentage was spent through competitive loan and grant programs administered by government employees.

“If you wanted to get money from the stimulus, you had to go to the federal agencies,” Ellis said. 

The White House tried to stiff-arm lobbyists by preventing federal officials from discussing specific proposals with them. But firms still advised clients on what to say and helped them write applications for the money, as well as helping to determine what grants or loans they had a reasonable chance of securing.

“You have to study a grant application, the history of the program, and match that up with the capability [of your client],” said Jayme Sokolow, whose firm Development Source helps companies and nonprofits apply for grant and loan programs. 

The recession is also driving the shift. The bad economy cut off other funding sources, forcing more cities, local governments and nonprofit groups to Washington in search of federal dollars to compensate.

“Their needs are increasing because of the difficulty in getting other sources of money,” Marlowe said.

Helping clients make inroads with federal agencies isn’t new. Mike Fulton, a lobbyist at Golin Harris, said his firm has worked with Sokolow and Development Source for 15 years. 

But the focus on the federal agencies as a source of cash for clients gained steam more recently, Fulton said, in part due to an unfortunate — from an appropriations lobbyist’s perspective — occurrence in 2007.

Democrats had reclaimed the majority in the 2006 midterm elections, but Republicans had not yet completed work on the Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill. This particular appropriations bill is normally a treasure trove for lobbyists, but Democrats, wanting to get on to their own agenda, passed a bill sans earmarks.

That forced firms to go to the agency itself, Fulton said.

The firm now notes its proprietary database that keeps track of both federal and private funding sources when marketing its services to potential clients. 

“Universities have grant writers. But community hospitals and clinics don’t have a lot of that expertise on staff,” Fulton said.

The firm offers to help steer clients through the grant-writing process, in addition to its more traditional role of reaching out to Congress. 

The grant-writing process can be daunting, Sokolow said. There are thousands of grant and loan programs that distribute hundreds of billions of dollars. Applications, though, can run 30 pages, not including appendices of résumés and records of success on similar projects. 

Sokolow said applications can take as many as 30 days to complete.

“As earmarks come out ... it is more important to government-relations firms to help their clients connect with government agencies and to market their programs to the agencies,” Sokolow said.

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