By Kevin Bogardus - 05/17/10 08:10 PM EDT
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
Bennett (R-Utah) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost in primary
elections last week after their earmarking prowess was attacked by
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
also reached out to two lobbyists from Flagship Government Relations,
Rich Efford and Julie Giardina, according to the meeting’s participant
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
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
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.
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.’ ”
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
Ellis doubted the campaign’s sincerity for genuine reform.
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.