By Kate Ackley
Roll Call Staff
If the lobbying world of K Street was as powerful as its public image, earmarks would be back in full force in Congress — or, maybe, they never would have gone away.
The modern lobbying business was built largely on helping clients secure member- directed pots of money in annual appropriations bills. And many of the firms that pioneered the practice have taken a serious hit since lawmakers banned earmarks in 2010.
But don’t expect K Street to mount a high-profile, big-dollar campaign to bring them back. Instead, in private meetings with members of Congress and their aides, lobbyists say they offer a pitch for how earmarks could help lawmakers, who are often frustrated that they can’t direct money to their districts, wrest more control of federal dollars.
And those making the case for earmarks aren’t just the ones whose paychecks depended on appropriations work.
“It’s never affected our bottom line,” said GOP lobbyist Alex Vogel, a partner with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “It has very much affected the ability of the legislative branch and of government to function in a broader sense, so it’s affected everybody.”
Earmarks were at the heart of several political corruption scandals, including one that sent former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., to jail. The spending items became a target of budget-cutting lawmakers and outside groups.
But their absence, many earmark proponents argue, has contributed to the dysfunction and stalemate on Capitol Hill. Without earmarks, the argument goes, there is little leaders can do to lure votes for larger bills and enforce party discipline on measures deemed “must-pass” legislation.
The lack of earmarks, some say, was one reason House Republican leaders could not muster GOP votes for such measures as the Transportation-HUD appropriations plan that collapsed while on the House floor over the summer.
Plenty of members privately agree, and some will even say so publicly. But it’s a losing issue politically, and neither earmarks nor some creative new moniker for them will crop up before the 2014 elections.
The lobbying world, however, presses on. “When we talk to members and the subject comes up, we talk about it and they agree,” said Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International. “In conversations, we explain to them on several levels: They’re relinquishing their constitutional power of the purse. They like to read the Constitution on the floor, but they’re not listening to what it says. They need to reassert their power.”