Stu Van Scoyoc chose a spot right near the Capitol for his lobbying firm’s offices because he liked the postcard-perfect view and the convenient location, and for a long time, he kept the focus squarely on the Hill.
Van Scoyoc Associates built a business by helping a long list of clients — many of them closer to Main Street than Wall Street — get what they wanted in federal spending as legislation moved through Congress. And despite a relatively low profile, it became one of Washington’s top lobbying firms.
But a ban on earmarks that took effect in 2011, along with the breakdown of Congress’s system for approving spending bills in recent years, have forced the firm to change the way it works. So while the conference room with the picture windows is still a popular spot for client meetings and political fundraisers, Van Scoyoc’s lobbyists have increasingly looked beyond Capitol Hill.
That means meeting with Transportation Department officials to help prepare grant applications, assisting small defense contractors who want to introduce their products to the Pentagon and working with universities to raise their Washington profile.
“It’s a much more complicated process and it takes more effort by everybody,” Van Scoyoc said. “But there’s still a massive government out there, even in tight times, spending large sums of money.”
The earmark ban came after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, keen to repair the public relations damage from a system that allowed lawmakers to funnel federal money to pet projects. While earmarks accounted for only about one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, they were a central focus for many in Washington’s influence industry.
As part of the mounting dysfunction on Capitol Hill, the traditional appropriations process, under which Congress passes 12 separate spending bills each year, also ground to a halt. With that, the chances for lobbyists to add or preserve funding for government programs that matter to their clients also largely dried up.
“The magic, the great thing about when the system is working, is that you knew every year there would be a piece of legislation,” Van Scoyoc said.
Van Scoyoc (pronounced “van SKOIK”) isn’t alone in having to adjust. Some firms have expanded their network of offices in the states. Others have added public affairs and coalition-building to their offerings. Lobbyists who didn’t specialize in earmarks and appropriations say they’ve felt the impact, too, blaming Congress’s recent inability to pass legislation, at least in part, on the absence of earmarks that used to help grease the wheels.
Although it remains one of the top five firms by reported lobbying income, Van Scoyoc Associates’ revenue has dropped more than 25 percent since 2010, to $21 million in 2013 — a far steeper decline than the 10 percent fall across the industry. Its staff has fallen too, from 73 in 2010 to 66 today. (For the first quarter of 2014, the firm reported revenue of $4.8 million, up slightly from a year earlier.)
Other lobby shops specializing in appropriations have been hit even harder. Cassidy & Associates, whose founder, Gerald Cassidy, pioneered modern earmarks, reported lobbying revenue of $12.2 million last year, down from just over $20 million in 2010.
Van Scoyoc lobbyists acknowledge that their work was easier when the focus was earmarks. They also point out that they always spent some of their time working on things besides earmarks and appropriations — like pressing their clients’ cases with oversight committees and with agencies that actually spend the money. But these days, the lobbyists are doing much more of that.
“It’s a way we’re working to achieve the same sorts of ends we used to be able to achieve through earmarks, but obviously now it’s a different process,” said Leslee Gilbert, a lobbyist at the firm.
Unlike many Washington advocacy shops, Van Scoyoc does not hire former members of Congress. But the staff includes many former Hill staffers, as well as people who worked in federal agencies and the military, all with valuable insight and connections.
Gilbert used to be the staff director for the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, where she said she got to know officials in the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program, which coordinates policy among 15 federal agencies.
When officials from the University of Notre Dame, a Van Scoyoc client, wanted to boost the research budget at a wireless institute at the school, she set up meetings with some of those contacts, Gilbert said.
Gilbert also helped Florida International University, in the Miami area, win an $11.4 million grant from the Transportation Department — one of 52 projects to get federal funds out of 568 applications. Gilbert worked to set up agency meetings and tried to build support for the effort among the school’s congressional delegation.
Despite the new environment, people who work at the firm say their clients — including dozens of universities and municipalities, many paying relatively small retainers — still want the same things.
“They want to be included in legislation. They want to get something accomplished. They want provisions that will help them and their business,” said Steven Palmer, who joined Van Scoyoc in 1998 after working on Capitol Hill and as an assistant secretary of transportation.
Many clients have been with the firm for years. But sometimes, when clients get what they’re after, they don’t need to be clients anymore. And sometimes, the lobbyists have to concede that they’re unlikely to succeed, and their clients go away empty-handed.
Palmer, who coordinated grants when he worked at the Transportation Department, stressed that he’s not a grant writer, but he does try to show clients what the agency is looking for when it makes decisions.
“What I try to help them understand is, you may not like to use the word ‘sustainability,’ or you may want to build that interchange,”he said, “but you’re not going to get funded unless you do the things that this agency wants you to do.”
Some other lobbyists say Van Scoyoc’s approach could be problematic because its clients are sometimes vying for the same pots of money. But others credit the firm with smartly adjusting to changing times and for helping clients compete in a tough budget environment.
“They’re trying to open a series of doors that a few years ago you didn’t have to open because you could write something right into a bill,” said Jim Dyer, a former top staff member on the House Appropriations Committee who is now a lobbyist at the Podesta Group.
Van Scoyoc, now 67, was an engineer at DuPont and went to law school at night before moving to the chemical giant’s Washington office in 1974, and he’s wistful when he talks about how Congress functioned back then, with committees digging deeply into issues and lawmakers getting to know each other.
“The noise level was not so great,” he said. “Members were not so stretched and so stressed that they couldn’t take the time and hear both sides.”
He launched Van Scoyoc Associates in 1990 with three lobbyists, and the firm soon focused on appropriations, a speciality that proved valuable when Republicans took control of the House in 1994 and increased the use of earmarks. In an influential 1996 memo, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich urged appropriations subcommittee chairmen to use the targeted funding to help Republicans facing tough re-election fights.
“We had developed a good reputation; there was not as much competition in the appropriations world,” Van Scoyoc said. “The earmark part of things started to grow, and we grew along with that.”
All along, the firm was good at what he calls “a translational thing — taking ideas that people had of things they would like to accomplish and translating that into legislative language, building constituent support for something, taking it to the members and through the committee process.”
Van Scoyoc and other lobbyists who specialize in appropriations say they’re optimistic that the two-year budget deal reached in late 2013 heralds the end of stop-gap spending measures and the return of regular appropriations bills.
The firm recently hired Harry Glenn, a longtime chief of staff to the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), a past chairman of the appropriations panel. David Jolly (R), another former Young staffer who won the March special election to replace Young, worked for several years as a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc.
There have been other changes at Van Scoyoc Associates, including the addition of a small philanthropy practice, to help foundations connect with policymakers.
Van Scoyoc also owns two smaller firms — The Implementation Group, which only works on federal grants and contracts, and Capitol Decisions Inc., a boutique firm with three registered lobbyists and a focus on issues such as addiction-related health care. Revenue from all three firms for work that is not included in the reported lobbying totals, such as consulting on government procurement and outreach to federal agencies, is up 5 to 10 percent since 2010, offsetting some of the other losses, he said.
From his perch a few floors above the white tablecloths of Charlie Palmer Steak, a popular spot for fundraisers, Van Scoyoc recalled the decision to take the firm’s office space, which required him to commit to several thousand more square feet than he was looking for.
Over the years, the space provided the business with the room it needed to grow. “More recently, it’s kind of been a problem for us,” he said, as the firm reduced its footprint.
“If I had to do it now, I’m not sure I would be willing to take the risk.”