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.
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.
That busy pace has eased the worries of some lobbyists.
“I’ve been feeling a lot better lately, since they started marking up the bills,” said Rich Gold, who heads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight.
Gold said this year his firm “probably scrubbed projects a little more closely,” turned some clients down and advised others not to pursue certain requests.
And many clients continue to say they’d be lost without such advice from a lobbying firm.
Doug Ulman, chief mission officer for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, said his group has worked with the firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal since 2002. For 2005, Sonnenschein reported collecting $280,000 from the foundation.
“While Lance could secure a meeting with President Bush or any Member of Congress, that’s usually not the way [winning funding] happens,” Ulman said. “The process and long-term nature is complicated.”
Ulman said the cancer-focused foundation is getting its money’s worth in building relationships with Congress and officials from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“For example, Lance asked the president for $1 billion last August,” Ulman said. “But that ask and that visit is not going to result in additional funding. It’s the work we do with Sonnenschein and our other partners ... that helps us get the money for cancer research and programs.”
Even Keith Ashdown of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense sees no end in sight for appropriations lobbying.
“The good appropriations lobbyists that are crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s aren’t going to be having any problems,” he said. “If they’re transparent, proud of their clients, proud of the money they’re getting their clients, they’re going to have no problems.”
Ashdown added, “There are so many levers they can pull, I would never count these guys out. They can get their earmarks in the Senate, the committees, managers amendments. They have 10 or a dozen bites at the apple.”
Said Holland & Knight’s Gold: “You push the balloon in one side, and it does pop out the other. We’ve been very successful for our clients.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.