Earmark lobbyists mount effort to defend practice of bringing home the bacon

Lobbyists who pursue congressional earmarks are planning a public-relations campaign to defend the practice, as voters signal they no longer want lawmakers to direct millions of federal dollars to pet projects back home.

The Ferguson Group, one of the largest earmark lobbying shops in Washington, is seeking donations from other appropriations lobbyists to establish a group that would promote the benefits of earmarks through a media campaign, according to documents obtained by The Hill.

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Pankowski-Rooney-Hart Public Relations (PRH) is already helping with fundraising for the effort. Lobbyists are also seeking a “good government” organization with which to align themselves.

“A group of firms have been meeting to identify the best way to raise awareness of the very real value of earmarking, and to provide some balance to what has been, to date, a largely one-sided debate,” Bill Ferguson, CEO of the Ferguson Group, said in a May 11 memorandum obtained by The Hill.

“We have decided to form an informal coalition, tentatively called the Earmark Reform and Education Coalition, with the overall goal being to foster a rational conversation about earmarking among all interested parties, so that we can preserve what works and reform what does not.”

Ferguson asked lobbyists to contribute at least $2,000 for an initial campaign costing nearly $25,000. The campaign could include writing op-eds, press releases and story pitches to selected reporters to influence how earmarks are covered leading into the 2010 midterm elections.

The effort comes as voters register their discontent with appropriators who “bring home the bacon,” a practice that historically has been one of the surest ways to win reelection. But rising federal deficits and negative news reports have transformed earmarks into examples of wasteful government spending for many voters.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost in primary elections last week after their earmarking prowess was attacked by opponents.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said earmarks have become “political kryptonite” for lawmakers.

“The public sees this as cronyism and a smoke-filled room in Washington making spending decisions,” Ellis said.

Roger Gwinn, president of the Ferguson Group, said in a statement e-mailed to The Hill that the campaign is an effort to correct “real misconceptions” about the earmarking process.

“This is not about those that lobby for earmarks, but about the public interests advanced through earmarks. Earmarking is an effective, locally driven, fiscally responsible and constitutionally granted legislative tool used to return federal funds to taxpayers,” Gwinn said.

Ellis dismissed the campaign as “a front group for lobbyists to preserve their jobs.”

“This appears to be not about promoting the positive aspects of earmarks. It seems to be about the gravy train of keeping cash coming into their firms,” Ellis said.

It’s not clear what structure the coalition will take. The effort could include the creation of a nonprofit group. If the coalition registers as a 501(c)(4) group, it would not have to release its financial donors to the public.

Lobbying firms can also just pay money directly to a public-relations firm to conduct the pro-earmark campaign.

A third option is to partner with the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), according to Ferguson’s memo.

Dave Wenhold, ALL’s president and a partner at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, said the organization has not decided on whether to join the campaign, but he defended earmarks as “the most transparent and accountable form of funding.”

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“I don’t know what path ALL will take but do feel that the story of the value of earmarks has yet to be told accurately,” Wenhold said.

Some of the biggest names in appropriations lobbying have been invited to discuss the coalition. Lobbyists from Alcalde & Fay, Patton Boggs and Van Scoyoc Associates have participated in the discussions or plan to, according to one meeting’s participant list.

Lobbyists from Patton Boggs and Van Scoyoc said the firms did not plan on joining the effort.

Ferguson also reached out to two lobbyists from Flagship Government Relations, Rich Efford and Julie Giardina, according to the meeting’s participant list.

Flagship is the new lobbying firm created by former employees of the now-defunct PMA Group, which was at the center of the earmark scandal that prompted ethics investigations of several members of Congress. Efford and Giardina both lobbied for PMA in the past. Flagship, however, is not participating in the effort, according to a lobbyist.

According to a seven-page proposal titled “Earmarks Transparency — Communications Campaign,” the coalition would help fund a two-phase campaign that would explain to the public how earmarks work and why lawmakers are better at making spending decisions than “agency bureaucrats.”

The first part would include a short-term “SWAT team” effort to “reframe the issue” and “help stop erosion of support for earmarks in Congress,” according to the proposal.

The second part would “further reframe the conversation from ‘earmarks are bad’ to ‘abuse of earmarks is bad, and it is important to introduce transparency into the process to ensure that this valuable practice is used correctly and benefits local jurisdictions.’ ”

The SWAT-team effort would be based off a white paper authored by Melissa Hyman, a Ferguson Group lobbyist, titled “The Fairness of Congressional Earmarking in American Democracy.” It will also include a two-page earmark “truth sheet” that will be handed out to reporters and lawmakers, as well as “Swiss cheese” press releases, op-eds and letters to the editor that will push greater transparency but tout the benefits of earmarks, according to the proposal.

The second phase would be more long-term and intend “to influence the earmarks conversation surrounding the midterm elections.” The coalition would conduct a national poll on earmarking, find local officials who support the effort and partner with “a good-government group or prominent ‘senior statesman’ supporter” to advocate for earmark transparency. This phase would include ad buys, a website and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Ellis doubted the campaign’s sincerity for genuine reform.

“The question will be how much reform they will be for and how much education they will be doing, vis-à-vis earmarks being awarded on merit rather than on political muscle,” Ellis said.

Ellis said if their call for greater transparency is real, then the lobbyists should endorse legislation in both houses of Congress to create a centralized, online database of earmarks.

Gwinn said the coalition has discussed specific legislation but not was ready to endorse any bill yet.

“All members support full and complete transparency in the process,” he said.

The coalition certainly has its work cut out. Earmarks have won ridicule from Democrats and Republicans alike, and differing bans on the pet projects by each party have been placed in the House this year.