Is There Life After Earmarks?

Long lines lead to an airport checkpoint -- and, indirectly, to discord between airline and hotel groups.
Long lines lead to an airport checkpoint -- and, indirectly, to discord between airline and hotel groups. (By Elaine Thompson -- Associated Press)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

It looks as though 2008 will be a year of few earmarks.

Close observers of Capitol Hill predict that only a small number of these narrow home-state projects will be enacted this year, for two reasons: public outrage over "special interest" legislation and the bogging down of the congressional spending process itself, especially in the Senate. Most appropriations bills seem destined to be put off until 2009, leaving action on earmarks until next year as well.

Many voters will cheer. Lobbyists will not.

The trend, if it continues, could threaten the very existence of a number of lobbying firms.

Lobbyists who specialize in inserting earmarks into law prospered earlier this decade. In 2004, Congress passed 14,211 earmarks worth $53 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

But that won't happen again for a long time if Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee and a sworn enemy of "pork-barrel" spending, becomes president. His likely opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is no fan of earmarking, either.

So earmarking firms are looking elsewhere for revenue. A few are cutting out the middleman -- Congress -- and increasingly lobbying for goodies directly from the executive branch.

A pioneer of earmark lobbying on Capitol Hill, Cassidy & Associates, started a "federal marketing" division a few years ago and already is bringing in $1.5 million a year, said John P. Boylan, the executive in charge.

Cassidy, in fact, has diversified into all sorts of lobbying, from international affairs to communications. As a result, it has reduced the portion of its business devoted to appropriations to less than 50 percent from its traditional 70 percent, while keeping overall revenue roughly level.

The firm has especially high hopes for its work with federal agencies and the mega-contractors that serve them. "We've seen some great growth in the business," Boylan said about federal marketing.

Other lobby shops are not so sure. The Livingston Group, for one, doubts that selling straight to Uncle Sam is a promising a substitute for earmarking. "That's a very difficult route," said former congressman Robert L. Livingston, the firm's founding partner. "Finding somebody in the bureaucracy to actually make a decision has been very difficult for us."

Livingston, a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, naturally relied on legislated earmarks when he opened his firm in 1999. Earmarking started out as nearly 80 percent of the Livingston Group's total.

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