Lobbyists and watchdog groups form coalition to push for earmark reforms

A coalition of lobbyists and public-interest advocates on Tuesday presented five principles for reforming the earmarking process. 

The coalition, which includes firms that lobby for appropriated projects and groups that argue earmarks are government waste, want to limit campaign contributions from earmark beneficiaries and ban congressional aides from attending campaign fundraisers. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The proposal comes after a legislative year in which earmarks — parochial projects tucked into appropriations bills by lawmakers — came under attack from President Obama and leaders of both parties.

House Republicans introduced a moratorium on the projects, House Democrats quit backing earmarks for for-profit entities and earmarks were attacked by the Tea Party movement. Some powerful appropriators, including Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), saw their reelection bids end after complaints over their prolific earmarking.

Rich Gold, a Democrat who heads the public policy and regulation group at Holland & Knight, said new reforms pushed by both parties were too politicized to effect real change. During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, he said the coalition wants to help fix a “toxic and partisan” process. 

Lobbyists involved with the group say they want to clean up the process to save earmarking. Killing earmarks altogether would hand over too much spending authority to the executive branch, they say.

“If Congress were to lose this power of the purse, it would further weaken the people’s legislature,” said former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), now a lobbyist at K&L Gates. 

Walsh, a former House Appropriations Committee member, said he is supporting the reform principles so earmarks will no longer be portrayed in such a negative light. 

Over the past month, the group has had courtesy briefings for House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. Some coalition members hope the principles could be incorporated into the rules for the next Congress. 

“The public is not forgetting this issue either,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of coalition member Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Between this effort and where the winds are blowing, we are going to see some kind of reform. The question is what.”

The new coalition’s five principles are: limiting campaign contributions from earmark beneficiaries to $5,000 for the two-year election cycle; banning congressional aides from attending campaign fundraisers; creating a searchable, sortable and downloadable earmarks database on a public website; tasking the Government Accountability Office to perform a random, regular audit of earmarks; and having lawmakers certify that their earmark recipients are qualified to complete the project. 

Other members of the group include Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Public Citizen and lobbyists from Holland & Knight and K&L Gates.

Craig Holman of Public Citizen has drafted legislation to limit campaign contributions from earmark recipients. While the coalition has not presented the draft text to lawmakers, it could be circulated in the future. The language is based on a New Jersey state law that is designed to stop pay-to-play tactics by government contractors. 

“This is not a campaign finance reform measure,” Holman said. “This is a policy to ensure integrity in the earmarking process, just like it has ensured integrity in the government contracting process in New Jersey.”

The new coalition sprang from talks between Gold and Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW, who begun talking to each other about the earmarking process over the past year after appearing together on several panels where they discussed the lobbying industry. 

Both saw little progress on the issue from either the House Democrats’ ban on earmarks for for-profit companies or the House Republicans’ moratorium on all earmarks. 

“The first time we sat down in a room together, we didn’t really know each other,” Gold said. “We just had a cartoon version of what the other was about.”

The plan now is to continue talks with interested lawmakers about reforming the earmarking process. Members are also working on op-eds to highlight their work to the public.

The coalition is different from one being led by the Ferguson Group, a giant firm in the appropriations lobbying game. As reported by The Hill earlier this year, Ferguson talked to lobbyists from several different firms to see if they would support forming a nonprofit group that would tout the benefits of earmarks. That effort has made little headway so far. 

“Nothing is organized as of yet,” said the Ferguson Group’s David Grentham. “It is very loose. It is just a bunch of professionals who continue to meet to talk about this issue.”