Feb. 9, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Approps Lobbyists Rattled

If you ask Ron Tussing, who became mayor of Billings, Mont., six months ago, he’ll tell you that paying for a Washington, D.C., appropriations lobbyist is a waste of taxpayer cash. City officials have plenty of contacts in the state’s Congressional delegation, he said, to guide them through the federal budget process.

“I disagree with the way the city’s handled their appropriation requests, which is one of the things I talked about during my campaign,” Tussing said. “I’m on a first-name basis with our three Congressional delegates, so there’s no reason we can’t do that stuff ourselves.”

Tussing’s swipe at their craft is not what appropriations lobbyists want to hear at this bewildering time for their business.

Soaring federal budgets have driven fiscal conservatives to push for stringent cuts. At the same time, the practice of earmarking specific pots of federal cash has come under investigation by the Justice Department, first in the scandal involving former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and more recently a probe of the appropriations-focused firm Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White. That firm, which has close ties to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), recently split in two because of the ongoing scandal.

With federal investigators probing whether some lobbyists have traded campaign donations for earmarks, lobbyists say the environment has led to greater scrutiny of federal budget requests and, in many cases, fewer successes for clients.

This one-two punch of a tight budget and scandal concerns has made for one of the most angst-ridden and competitive appropriations rounds ever. And that’s not great for business.

“We’re all sitting around commiserating,” one Republican appropriations lobbyist said. “There are fewer earmarks, and we’re all feeling a lot of pain.”

H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of Van Scoyoc Associates, one of D.C.’s biggest firms, said he expects his shop will take a slight dip in revenues this year.

“It’s a little slower,” he said. “I think people are keeping their heads down.”

Some potential clients, he said, are deferring decisions about hiring a firm because of the negative publicity about earmarks and lobbying. “People are saying, ‘Why not wait it out another year and see how it all plays out,’” he said.

Until the end of last year, the city of Billings had Van Scoyoc Associates under contract to handle budget and appropriations work, according to lobbying disclosure forms. Van Scoyoc reported earning less than $30,000 from the city in 2005.

Randall Popelka, who had been on the staff of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), handled the account, which terminated when Popelka returned to Burns’ staff as his legislative director.

“All this revolving door stuff — I think we need to change how we operate there,” said Tussing, who, along with the Billings City Council, has the power to approve lobbying contracts for the city.

One lobbyist who would speak about the Lowery probe only on condition of anonymity said, “There is a growing concern downtown on where this is all going to end up. People are very nervous.”

Another lobbyist said the Lowery appropriations investigation could end up having a greater chilling effect than did the Jack Abramoff scandal or the bribery affair that sent Cunningham to jail.

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