Friends of the Earmark Make Themselves Heard

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The hottest document on Capitol Hill is an anonymous six-page white paper that defends, of all things, earmarks -- those much-maligned home-state projects that lawmakers shoehorn into spending bills.

A growing number of politicians have decided to just say no to earmarks. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has vowed to veto any legislation that contains "pork-barrel spending." And several Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), have promised not to request earmarks anymore.

The trend worries many lobbyists (and some lawmakers), and they are beginning to fight back -- in other words, to lobby. Although a publicist initially told the Washington Post otherwise, the Ferguson Group acknowledges that it helped persuade three mayors whose cities it represents to praise earmarks in a Post op-ed Saturday.

But the widely read white paper -- "The Fairness of Congressional Earmarking in American Democracy" -- is the biggest counterattack so far. The only question: Who wrote it?

Speculation has run wild. Most believe the document was penned by a lobbyist eager to justify his or her profession. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-earmark group, thinks it was produced by a college student (maybe the child of a lobbyist), judging by its simplistic approach.

Now the mystery can be solved -- at least partly. I have it on good authority that the author is a member of a little-known organization of former appropriations staffers called the 302(b) Group.

The group is named for the congressional instruction that gives the green light for appropriations committees to spend. A hefty 302(b) allocation, needless to say, is what appropriations staffers (and earmark lobbyists) live for.

The 302(b) Group updates its more than 100 members, most of whom are lobbyists, with the latest news on their topic of interest. Lately, that news has been dispiriting. Nearly 12,000 earmarks totaling more than $18 billion made their way into law last year. But that is unlikely to be sustained, given the bad publicity that earmarks have received -- from the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere" to the activities of such infamous earmarkers as Jack Abramoff and Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Thus the white paper. It contends that congressional earmarks distribute federal dollars more widely -- and by inference more equitably -- than government bureaucrats do. Non-earmarked spending is "less democratic," the paper says. It also asserts that earmarking has been a mainstay of federal budgeting since Rep. George Thatcher of Massachusetts won the first earmark -- $1,500 for the Portland Head lighthouse -- during the very first Congress.

Ellis rejects the paper's central argument. "Just because earmarks are more widely distributed does not mean they are more meritorious," he said. "In fact, the most powerful lawmakers are the ones who get the most money."

Congress rejected a moratorium on earmarks earlier this year, and no one expects them to disappear. "One of the big reasons lawmakers are elected to Congress is to bring things home to their states and districts," said budget expert Stan Collender.

In the meantime, the hunt will go on for the 302(b)er behind the white paper, and so will the pro-earmark lobbying campaign.

Coal Gets Fired Up

Natural gas mogul Aubrey K. McClendon ran into trouble with producers of other kinds of energy by pushing too hard for his own commodity -- and against the others -- with his American Clean Skies Foundation. I wrote about the dust-up last week.

Now, the coal industry, an occasional target of the billionaire, is battling back. Partly in response to McClendon, two groups have combined to form the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a $45 million-a-year effort to promote coal and its conversion through technology into a "cleaner" energy source.

The coalition's predecessor groups were not fans of reducing greenhouse gases to combat climate change. But the industry has changed its mind. In fact, the group's breathtakingly pro-environmental pitch for coal is very similar to McClendon's appeal for natural gas.

"The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is committed to the idea that America can have the affordable, reliable electricity we need . . . with the clean environment we want," the group's Web site says.

Just ignore all that smoke.

A Food Fight With Whiskers

That's a fine kettle of, well, you know, that the Catfish Farmers of America have made for the food industry.

You may remember that the catfish lobby successfully persuaded the Senate to require catfish to undergo inspections similar to those for meat and poultry. That was a way, critics said, to keep out foreign competition. But it also spurred House aides to draft legislation that would subject all seafood to inspections by the Agriculture Department.

It now looks as if that broad language might make it into the farm bill, and the food lobby is upset. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association and the National Fisheries Institute have complained that added regulation would be costly and duplicative; the Food and Drug Administration already has responsibility in the area.

But lawmakers might be hooked on more inspections. Stay tuned.

Departure of the Week

Most people think the oil industry is a male bastion. But that's not true in Washington. Three of the largest oil companies have women in charge of their D.C. offices.

Well, now there are only two.

Peggy R. Hudson, who became the first woman in charge of a major oil company lobbying shop six years ago, is taking a break after six years as BP America's vice president for federal and international affairs.

Hudson, 56, started her career in 1971 as an aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). She went on to lobby for Korf Industries, the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Portland Cement Alliance.

Chevron and Marathon still have women at the helm in the capital.

Hire of the Week

Sol Levine was Wolf Blitzer's producer at CNN during one of the craziest rides in modern politics (until this year, that is) -- Bill Clinton's bid for president in 1992.

Levine survived that and did a lot more in television news. He was executive producer for CNN's White House coverage and produced stories for NBC News and ABC News. Most recently, he was executive producer for the Broadcast Center of the Americas at Al Jazeera English.

He's decided to switch again, only this time to public relations. Levine, 52, will offer media training and advice at Qorvis Communications. That ought to be a breeze in comparison.

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