After all, this lobbyist said, Abramoff’s scheme of charging clients millions of dollars to do grass-roots work and maintaining a secret partnership with Michael Scanlon is not something most lobbyists do. But raising money for Members and then asking them for appropriations is routine.
“If you have clients who want earmarks, get earmarks and then contribute to the Congressman — that’s everybody,” this lobbyist said.
With Members also discussing possible reforms to the earmarking process as part of a lobbying reform package, lobbyists and clients are experiencing even more uncertainty.
Diane Blagman, a Democratic lobbyist who focuses on appropriations work at the law and lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, has in some cases told telling clients that she won’t accept their money this year.
“It’s a tougher time,” she said. “I have told several clients this year that this might not be the right year to try for an earmark. I told several clients that I couldn’t ask them to pay me when I knew that it would be almost impossible for them to get an earmark.”
Blagman, like many of her peers, said this year has made it even more clear that having a diverse lobbying practice is a must. She has branched out her work to include policy matters, particularly for entertainment clients such as the Grammy Foundation.
When it comes to earmarks, though, Blagman said she sees more openness and transparency already taking hold, even without any official changes to the system. These include appropriations cardinals submitting earmarks in earlier versions of their bills, rather than holding back their earmarks, for strategic reasons, until House and Senate negotiators worked out the final differences between their two versions.
Vincent Versage of the National Group is a veteran appropriations lobbyist whose clients include Texas Tech University, National Jewish Hospital and Emerson College. He agrees that this year has brought fewer earmarks and more scrutiny.
“It does feel different than other years,” he said, but added that “the bottom line is, if you have good clients and meritorious projects and Members who will support them and put press releases out saying ‘I’ve done this for my district,’ there shouldn’t be a problem.”
Versage isn’t the only one to see some hope.
Michael Fulton, a lobbyist with Golin/Harris International, also focuses on the appropriations sector. In some of the House spending bills, he said, “We had a number of clients that received federal funds for worthy projects.” And for those clients who didn’t make the cut, Fulton said, “We’re thinking about how we might reshape our strategy for the Senate. We’re not fazed by the ethical challenges from some other firms and some Members of Congress and by the potential earmark reforms. Until they’re enacted, it’s business as usual.”
Jim Dyer, former clerk and staff director for the House Appropriations Committee who is now a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock, called his job “brutal” lately, but not because business has fallen off; instead, he said, it’s because the pace has been so frenetic with the House moving its spending bills in rapid succession.
“I said this to my former colleagues, ‘If you want to make life miserable for me, just keep doing what you’re doing,’” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.