Earmarks were at the heart of several political corruption scandals and became a target of budget-cutting lawmakers and outside groups. Many of the K Street firms that pioneered the practice of securing member-directed pots of money in annual appropriations bills have taken a serious hit since lawmakers banned earmarks in 2010.
Fans of earmarks say the targeted directives don’t really increase the federal government’s overall spending — they simply tagged taxpayer dollars to specific projects. They were also a valuable tool to help leadership keep the rank and file in line, providing incentives for lawmakers to vote for measures that otherwise might have been too bitter to accept.
“As a non-Appropriations person, it was never the world I lived in,” said Vogel, who was a senior aide to Tennessee Republican Bill Frist when he was Senate Majority Leader. “But now some unelected person at [the Office of Management and Budget] is going to decide how to spend that money.”
When faced with massive spending bills, the demise of earmarks means the removal of “the political self-interest chunk, the sweeteners,” Vogel said. “Politically, how do we unring that bell? I would argue they need to rebrand the earmarks.”
But whatever members might dub them, the outside groups that helped make earmarks a dirty word won’t easily be fooled.
“There will always be a threat of going back to earmarks until we get a system in place that really replaces the perceived need for earmarks,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Though his organization supported an end to earmarks, Ellis said his group would like to see Congress exercise more power of the purse by setting out spending criteria and metrics and holding the executive branch accountable through oversight.
He dismisses the calls to bring back earmarks as a remedy for stalemate as “an argument made mostly by people who never wanted earmarks to go away in the first place” and who are trying to find any lever to bring to them back.
“Maybe on the margins you could buy a couple of votes, but I don’t think in the bigger picture it would have solved that much,” Ellis said. “This idea that earmarks are the grease that makes everything go ... is really preposterous.”
Whether earmarks made things go on Capitol Hill may be open for debate, but there is no doubt about their importance to fueling K Street business.
Some of the biggest shops in town pioneered the dash for earmarks.
One such firm, Cassidy & Associates, had the highest grossing fees (more than $27 million) back in 2000 as measured by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Last year, Cassidy reported about $15.5 million.
In December 2010, on the cusp of the earmark moratorium, the firm restructured and laid off about a dozen employees. Like other firms at the time, Cassidy also was readjusting to the weak economy, and the firm has continued to diversify well beyond appropriations and budget matters.
Michael Fulton, president of the Arnold Agency’s D.C. office, says K Street would have a resurgence with a return of earmarks.
“While I have been able to reinvent myself by concentrating on more holistic funding opportunities for my clients ... bringing back appropriations projects to the portfolio would boost my business and that of many other firms,” he said. “It will happen; it is just a matter of time.”