Lobbyists Eye Earmarks for Homeland Security
For the first two years of the Homeland Security Department’s budget, lobbyists hungry for earmarks have been out of luck. But the third time — this year — may be the charm.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, says he is open to including earmarks in much of the bill, mainly as a way for Congress to provide specific instructions to the department on how it should use its budget.
“I don’t want to say we don’t want to tell the department how to spend its money,” Rogers said.
Of course, Rogers and other appropriators don’t want the Homeland Security bill to end up a free-for-all either, given the growing federal deficit and calls by the White House to hold the line on spending. And lobbyists, taking their cues from Capitol Hill, have kept their enthusiasm in check.
“We’ve steered our clients away from pursuing and requesting homeland security earmarks,” said C. Michael Fulton, a lobbyist with Golin/Harris International. “We do have several clients — a couple of tech clients and universities — that have proposals that are ripe to be funded by Homeland Security. But it’s a risk — it’s a big risk. And you want to steer your clients to the most likely pots of money, not steer them into the unknown.”
Fulton added: “Our clients’ expectations in the bill are zero and my expectations are zero.”
Many lobbyists are more sanguine, viewing the opening up of the Homeland Security bill as a potential, if uncertain, windfall.
“There’s definitely going to be a choke point on the appropriations process this year, and this would loosen it up a little bit,” said an appropriations-focused lobbyist.
Rogers cautioned, however, that his committee would not permit earmarks in every part of the bill.
“I don’t foresee us earmarking the grant programs, the first-responder programs,” Rogers said, explaining that if Congress started dictating which jurisdictions should get fire department or police funding, “I don’t know where we would stop. … It would not be good policy.”
Of course, not every lobbyist in Washington thinks homeland earmarks are a good idea.
Judy Chesser, director of the New York City Washington office, said she worries that earmarks could end up funneling money to entities that are not under the most serious threats.
“Congress seems to be making progress on giving the Department of Homeland Security discretion to make these decisions based on threat risk vulnerabilities, and earmarking would seem to conflict with that,” she said.
Former Rep. Michael Flanagan (R-Ill.), who runs Flanagan Consulting, said that the impact of homeland earmarks could cut either way.
It might open up funding for important new programs and set up healthy competition with Defense Department technologies, he said. But on the other hand, he added, “it’s also possible that homeland earmarks will be a political grab bag that will do little good for anyone and will drain resources from important areas of research, production or development.”
Ever since the department was created, many lawmakers have complained that it is dysfunctional and cries out for increased oversight from the legislative branch.
Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, said the desire to include earmarks was “reflective of a general frustration with the bureaucracy’s tendency not to pay attention to the Members’” wishes.
Whatever the reason, lobbyists most certainly will line up to make their pitch to Members’ offices to include specific funding for their clients’ programs in next year’s budget.
“For the private-sector world generically, it gives clients another audience to address,” said Mark Holman, former chief of staff at the White House Office of Homeland Security, who now lobbies for such clients as Pennsylvania-based Mylan Laboratories Inc. and Cambrex Bio Science Baltimore at the firm Blank Rome. “Clients would not only work to compete for federal business through the [request for proposals] process, but now there’s an opportunity to talk to Members on the Hill. It increases the opportunity for companies, so the private sector is by and large hoping the earmarking process is beginning sooner rather than later.”
The interest in this niche market on K Street dates back to shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It even prompted the Congressional officials who keep tabs on lobbying disclosure forms to create a Homeland Security-specific issue code in January 2002.
But without appropriations earmarks, and with the uncertainty of how the new department would develop, many lobbyists found it was more aspiration than reality.
For the first two years, the subcommittee did not accept Member requests for earmarks. But in both go-rounds, many lobbyists went through the motions of presenting their clients’ case to Congressional offices, and Members went through the process of submitting them to the subcommittee.
One Congressional aide said it’s just a matter of time before lobbyists start retooling their expectations and those of their clients.
“Once the door is open, those expectations are going to be rekindled, and then they will grow exponentially,” said the Congressional staffer. “The pent-up demand is so great. People have been hungry for two years.”
John Clerici, a lobbyist with the firm McKenna Long and Aldridge whose clients are working with both the House and Senate Homeland Security subcommittees, said that allowing for earmarks makes “an easier process to make sure you’re delivering the project at the end of the day” for the client.
Appropriations lobbyists say this year is ripe for Homeland Security earmarks for more reasons than just that Congress wants to have a greater say in how the department operates.
At this time last year, when Rogers was making a point of prohibiting earmarks in the fiscal 2005 Homeland Security bill, he was also locked in a tough race for the Appropriations chairmanship with Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).
While Rogers made a conservative stand on the Homeland Security measure, Regula drew attention in the previous Congress by stripping Democrats’ earmarks out of his Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending bill.
As Rogers and Regula worked to demonstrate their fiscal discipline, Lewis was not shy about including earmarks for his colleagues in the Defense bill. When the Steering Committee met in January to hand out the gavel, Lewis won by a wide margin.
One appropriations lobbyist said, “Chairman Lewis became chairman because he’s been very good to a lot of Members.”
But while Rogers lost the race for the gavel, the 67-year-old Kentucky lawmaker could choose to make another run when Lewis is term-limited out of the chairmanship in 2010.
And as chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee for another four years, one GOP lobbyist said, allowing earmarks “is also a way for [Rogers] to curry favors with other members of the Republican Conference, so they will support him for full committee chair.”
Obviously, the House isn’t the only body that would approve earmarks on the Homeland Security bill. But lobbyists say if the House permits them, they fully expect the Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to easily follow suit.
Trey Barnes, who runs Public Policy Partners, said earmarks on the House Homeland Security bill this year would come as no surprise. “Obviously, that’s up to Chairman Rogers,” said Barnes, a former lobbyist at Cassidy and Associates, which was a pioneer in the business of appropriations lobbying. “The Constitution, at the end of the day, gives the power of making spending allocations to the Congress. If Chairman Rogers and the committee decides to exercise that constitutional right, they are well within their prerogatives to do that.”