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Lobbyists eager for return to earmarks

Lobbyists eager for return to earmarks
© Greg Nash

Growing momentum for a return to earmarks is sparking excitement on K Street, with veteran lobbyists saying it would lead to new clients looking to secure special projects in congressional districts.

Former Capitol Hill aides who now work for lobbying shops are eager to see earmarks used for the first time in a decade. K Street would stand to boost revenue with an influx of new stakeholders in a variety of areas.

“What it would do for us is it would just provide the opportunity for clients that don’t have major policy issues to retain us. That would be colleges, cultural institutions, some groups that don’t have a need right now for full time federal help,” said Mark Holman, a partner at Ridge Policy Group.

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“For the lobbying community, there would be new and more client opportunities, unquestionably,” he added.

Ed Pagano, a partner at Akin Gump, added that lobbyists would benefit from the doors that restoring earmarks would open.

“It would encourage colleges and universities and public and private partnerships to have a renewed focus on the appropriations process, and that would be a benefit to the lobbying industry as we advocate for those clients,” said Pagano, former chief of staff to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahySenate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap On The Money: Democratic scramble complicates Biden's human infrastructure plan | Progressives push on student debt relief No designated survivor chosen for Biden's joint address to Congress MORE (D-Vt.).

The House and Senate have not come to a final agreement yet on earmarks, which were banned by Republicans in 2011 because of concerns about corruption.

Democrats have argued that the practice of allowing lawmakers to direct spending on special projects for congressional districts should be restored with limitations.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Top Democrat: Bill to boost Capitol security likely to advance this month MORE (D-Conn.) unveiled a plan last month for earmarks, which Democrats are calling “community project funding.” 

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The plan would require lawmakers to adhere to requirements such as providing evidence of “strong community support” and only request funding for up to 10 projects.

DeLauro’s plan also requires that funding can’t go to for-profit recipients and can only go to state and local grantees or nonprofits.

Still, critics of earmarks tend to cite some of the more egregious examples involving the spending practice. In 2005, Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungFive takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Does Biden have an ocean policy? McCarthy and Biden haven't spoken since election MORE (R-Alaska) secured $223 million for the infamous “bridge to nowhere,” and ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) accepted bribes in return for directing tens of millions in funding toward defense contracts, landing him in prison for eight years.

Watchdog groups are cautiously optimistic about the new Democratic setup.

“Earmarks were very problematic when they represented a free-for-all in which lobbyists pushed for pork for well-heeled clients. We are hopeful that the new earmark configuration, which only allows them to be used when requested by state and local governments with caps on total amounts and with full transparency, will keep the problem of conflict of interests in earmarks from reemerging, but only time will tell,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president at Public Citizen.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) said DeLauro’s parameters would make earmarks easier to support.

“Earmarks are a concern if they are to benefit a big-money donor and could not withstand public scrutiny — but if someone wants an earmark for a homeless shelter or vaccine distribution center in an underserved community, then that is the right kind of spending that advances the common good,” said Caitlin Lang, PCCC spokesperson.

Earmarks would be limited to 1 percent of discretionary funding, according to DeLauro’s plan.

“The amount that would be spent on earmarks would be a small drop in the federal spending government,” Holman said.

Earmarks themselves don’t directly increase the amount of government spending, but they change how that money is spent.

“Congressionally directed spending returning is good for the legislative process. I think anytime you have bills moving through the process the real benefit is to all stakeholders,” said Izzy Klein, co-founder of Klein/Johnson Group and former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHow to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs On The Money: How demand is outstripping supply and hampering recovery | Montana pulls back jobless benefits | Yellen says higher rates may be necessary Senate Democrats announce B clean bus plan MORE (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinAmerica's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Ill.) has argued that support for a massive infrastructure package, which is a priority of the Biden administration, could be bipartisan if earmarks were restored.

Brian Wild, a policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, said it’s unlikely that a lawmaker who gets their earmark in an infrastructure package would then turn around and vote against final passage.

And with the transparency requirements surrounding new earmarks, Wild said they could be beneficial to lawmakers such as Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan Trump drama divides GOP, muddling message MORE (R-Alaska) who could find themselves facing a primary challenger or tough reelection opponent.

“I think this could be a big boom to somebody like say, Lisa Murkowski who is going to have a tough election in two years, and a weird primary with her former president campaigning against her, but she’s an appropriator and will participate. For her, it will be a big benefit,” said Wild, a former senior adviser to ex-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBudowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only House Republicans request hearing with Capitol Police Board for first time since 1945 Press: John Boehner: good author, bad leader MORE (R-Ohio).

Lobbyists say earmarks can also facilitate the kind of regional interests that create small pockets of bipartisanship in Congress.

“At the end of the day, parochial interests will often supersede party affiliation when it comes to local and regional funding decisions, and we saw members working within their state delegations, across partisan lines, to pursue funding streams for important programs and projects,” said Ian Rayder, a principal at Klein/Johnson.

Pagano added: “It’s more buy in from the members and they know their districts well. My sense is it will actually make the bills more effective and target the resources where they should go.”