All Shook Up

Appropriations Lobbyists Puzzle Through Congress’ New Order

Posted February 4, 2005 at 5:43pm

Appropriations lobbying historically has been one of the most reliable sectors on K Street. But at the moment, it’s also among the most uncertain.

The Congressional Republican leadership, looking to reduce the number of Appropriations subcommittees from 13 to 10 and take a stronger hand in how jurisdiction is parceled out among those panels, has taken up a landmark reorganization. The Senate and House have not agreed to a plan, although a decision is expected by the end of this week.

As if that weren’t hectic enough, lobbyists and their clients who want earmarks in next year’s budget are scurrying under tight deadlines to turn in their funding requests. With concern about the federal deficit growing on both sides of the aisle, competition for such money is expected to be as sharp as ever.

“It’s a pretty tense time for all of us who have an interest in the appropriations process,” said Vincent Versage, a principal at the National Group, whose registered clients range from Oklahoma State University to the National Jewish Hospital to the American Film Institute.

Versage said that until recently, he had expected an on-time spending process this year, after 2004 in which a persistent backlog resulted in an enormous, last-minute omnibus bill. But that was before the restructuring proposals emerged.

“With the reorganization that’s occurring, that is causing quite a problem,” he said. “You have an acceleration of the timing, but at the same time, the reorganization is not settled. Most people don’t know where they’re going to end up — who’s going to be chairman and ranking member” on the subcommittees.

Both committees already entered the 109th Congress with new chairmen — Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif) — so lobbyists already had been preparing for some shuffling. They also were ready for possible reductions in spending because of concerns by fiscal conservatives who want to hold down the deficit.

But most lobbyists said they did not expect such dramatic proposals as those being hammered out now. And the timing, coming as the new Congress begins its work, makes sense for the appropriations committees, but not for lobbyists.

“At the beginning of the year, you’re already in a sense of urgency,” said C. Michael Fulton, an executive vice president at Golin/Harris International. “Then, if somebody wants to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game, it can make our job very difficult. I came here in 1979, and the 13 committees are almost identical, except for Homeland Security. New programs have been added, and new opportunities for earmarking have gone up. This would be a huge change.”

Many Congressional offices have set late-February deadlines for requests, and lobbyists say those targets haven’t changed as a result of possible major committee shuffles.

“It makes what we’re doing much more of an art than a science,” said Barry Rhoads, chief executive officer of the Rhoads Group. “You’ve got to really be willing to pivot based on whatever happens.”

Rhoads added, “We’re actively engaged with our clients, doing appropriations meetings every day. We don’t just work Capitol Hill, but we work the agencies.”

The shuffling of committees, chairmen and jurisdiction also tends to mean changes in staff — another headache for Appropriations lobbyists.

The departure or reassignment of some staffers might mean that lobbyists would lose their contacts on certain subcommittees and would need to start fresh with new staffers. And shifts in jurisdiction would take time getting used to. A defense lobbyist, for example, might be accustomed to dealing with only the Defense subcommittee. If weapons systems go into one bill and other military issues land in another, that could mean defense lobbyists would focus on two subcommittees instead of one.

The current state of flux also may result in some aides decamping voluntarily to K Street. Former clerk and staff director James Dyer — whose outsized influence in shaping federal funding irritated fiscal conservatives, a battle that made Dyer a mainstay in columns by Robert Novak a few years back — recently joined Clark & Weinstock. Other senior ex-aides, like Dyer, could end up as competitors to the current roster of appropriations lobbyists.

“Every year there seems to be a couple or handful of appropriations staffers who end up moving on and coming out into the lobbying world,” Versage said. “If you have a contraction of subcommittees, you might end up seeing more looking for a job” off the Hill.

Even so, Tim Sanders, a lobbyist with Cornerstone Government Affairs and former clerk on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, said he doesn’t expect a mass exodus of committee staffers. Even if the number of subcommittees shrinks, the workload will remain the same, he said. “People get shuffled around.”

It’s where those staffers and Members end up that most interests the lobbying community right now.

“We’re very anxious to learn what the staff alignment is going to be and which Members are going to chair which subcommittees,” says James Lofton, a senior vice president at the Rhoads Group, who previously served as legislative director to Cochran.

While the uncertainty may not necessarily be good for business, some lobbyists said they see some advantages in making the changes. If there are fewer committees, Fulton said, “there will probably be fewer hearings and actions taking place on separate bills at the same time.”

Former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a partner at Clark & Weinstock, said that having Dyer come on board gives his firm an advantage when it comes to appropriations lobbying.

“We couldn’t find a better one,” Fazio said. “He is a real pro with many friends. He’s one of the people who knows all the players in the process on both sides of the Capitol.”

When it comes to the committee changes, Fazio said, Dyer “will probably have a sense of what is being proposed because, I think, he may have contributed some thoughts to this. He certainly has been a source of information and thought during the transition.”

Many firms have established redundancies, with multiple contacts deep in the committee and the subcommittees. And in Sanders’ case, the reverse migration from K Street is likely to be a boon. The House Appropriations Committee’s new clerk and staff director, Frank Cushing, worked at Cornerstone until last month. Because of this, Cornerstone could be in a better position than others trying to navigate a new staff roster.

“At this firm here, we pretty well know everyone there,” said Sanders, whose clients include the General Mills Corp. “Whatever the committee does, it’ll be just fine for us. The more they change, the more they stay the same. It’s sort of nothing new.”

Richard Murphy, who runs R.B. Murphy & Associates and was a legislative assistant to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), also downplayed concern over the situation.

“Once the dust settles, there still will be a process in place and a formulation for going about doing business,” Murphy said.