Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Appropriators Still Hold Power Despite Austerity

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
For the first time in years, there are no large cuts planned for fiscal 2015, which will help Mikulski in the Senate.

Appropriators may not wield the clout they once did, but when it comes to lobbying for federal dollars, they’re still a top ticket in town.

Take last year’s fiscal 2014 omnibus package, which came to be known as a “lobbyist Christmas” for all the carve-outs and special lawmaker priorities it funded. That $1.1 trillion measure, enacted in January, brought appropriators back to center stage after years languishing in the wings while the parties battled over ideology, fiscal policy and the budget.

To be sure, a half a decade of belt tightening and the 2010 earmark ban has winnowed appropriators’ power. Congressional leaders have had a harder time riding herd on members without being able to trade earmarks for favors.

And K Street lobby shops that relied on securing earmarks in annual spending bills have also suffered, or at least had to refocus their lobbying efforts on federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget, which allocate dollars to specific projects and programs after lawmakers approve broader top-line sums.

Despite those tactical shifts, many lobbyists say they still focus on the House and Senate Appropriations committees whenever they want to get something done on Capitol Hill. For those lobbyists, the fiscal 2015 spending cycle will mark a return to form.

“Yes, we spend a lot of time in the agencies, chasing largely competitive grants and opportunities for funding for our clients. But all that money starts somewhere, and it starts with the appropriators,” said Jon Bouker, the co-leader of the government relations practice at the Arent Fox law and lobbying firm.

“We continue to work the appropriations committees unabated because we need to make sure that the money is there in those accounts for the agencies to be able to dole out the money,” he said. “Also to show there is political support for those accounts and those agencies.”

Somewhat ironically, budget austerity and the earmark ban may have concentrated power with appropriators. While they can’t dole out earmarks under a more lax budget environment, appropriators control what money is still available under tight budget caps. They can set priorities and determine trade-offs between programs, all under current law restrictions.

Perhaps most significant is their ability to set spending levels for federal agencies. Appropriators can funnel more money to programs they support and draw down and cancel money for accounts they oppose.

While they can no longer direct funding to specific projects that aren’t included as part of a White House budget request — a critical distinction that is one reason lobbyists are focused more on federal agencies — they can create and fund competitive grants at government agencies and tailor them to fit particular types of projects.

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