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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.

“Anytime a member can fashion or shape or increase or cut accounts in the budget, there’s an element of power there,” said Jim Dyer, a former Republican staff director and clerk for the House Appropriations panel and now a lobbyist at the Podesta Group. “And as long as we continue to believe in the Congressional power of the purse, the power will still be there.”

Securing committee report language and spending bill policy riders, which encourage or discourage agencies in the carrying out of particular activities, also has become big business for lawmakers and lobbyists alike in recent years, as work on congressional authorization committees has dried up.

Protecting Interests

The Appropriations committees also have become a critical backstop for lobbyists to shield favored programs from cuts proposed by administration budget requests.

“Organizations still need representation in the nation’s capital to protect their interests and make sure that their program isn’t defunded,” said Mike Fulton, president of the Washington office of the Arnold Agency, a public relations and communications company.

In the years since the earmark ban in 2010, outside lobbying of the Appropriations committees has moved further behind closed doors, according to James Walsh, a former House Republican who chaired multiple Appropriations subcommittees. He’s now at the K&L Gates law and lobbying firm.

“The power is still there. The process becomes less transparent now, I think, because earmarks are gone,” Walsh said. “But nonetheless, Congress, if it exercises its power, has the power.”

Some lobbyists say their work has become far more defensive under the tight discretionary spending limits of recent years. Because of that, the definition of an appropriations “victory” has changed: While securing an earmark or a large increase in program spending used to be considered a success, now it’s an accomplishment to protect spending for favored programs at existing levels.

“One of the most compelling questions asked when you go in to ask for appropriations is, ‘What would you have me cut to fund your request?’ ” Fulton said. “That’s a very fair and difficult question.”

Frozen Funding for Fiscal 2015

Since lobbyists still rely heavily on influencing discretionary budgets, some say the fiscal 2015 appropriations cycle is providing a welcome change of pace because, for the first time in years, the Appropriations committees are not planning large cuts.

The December budget deal rolled back automatic spending cuts that had been mandated under the Budget Control Act, thereby freeing up about $19 billion in extra discretionary money for lawmakers to spend in 2015.

That leaves the House and Senate Appropriations committees, led respectively by Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers and Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, in charge of distributing $1.014 trillion across federal agencies.

“There’s a little more wiggle room this year, which makes a difference,” said Diane J. Blagman, a senior director in Greenberg Traurig’s government law and policy practice.

Because the December budget deal largely keeps defense and domestic budgets flat between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, Blagman expects the lobbying pendulum to “swing back a bit more to the Hill this year.”

“But you still can’t forget about talking to the agencies,” she said.

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