Pssst. K Street delivers the goods – for a price.
Washington lobbyists are in hot demand, as clients seeking budget favors – such as earmarks – multiply.
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That means lobbyists help committee staff package an earmark in a way that will pass muster with the authorizing committee and top appropriators on the House side as well as a contact in the relevant agency or department, he says. "I tell them: 'You can't expect my staff to do all that work for you.' "Skip to next paragraph
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Lobbyists say the job requires constant vigilance. "You need to understand the pacing and timing of how the whole process works ... and stay in front of the members and committees so they won't forget," says Mark Irion, CEO of Dutko Worldwide, adding that earmarks account for less than 10 percent of his practice.
Still, the process for obtaining earmarks is well out of public view. Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi, who chaired the Agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee for all but two years between 1949 and 1992, told members to submit a list of all earmark requests at the beginning of the year. On the day his committee formally introduced the bill, he would clear the room of journalists and the public and read out which earmarks made it into the final bill.
"That's when we first found out whether our earmarks would make it into the bill," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, a former House member, who had replaced Mr. Whitten as the panel's chair in 1992.
In the Senate, he says, the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee decide on dollar amounts for each senator. The amount is determined by factors ranging from seniority to the vulnerability of the senator in the next election. "You decide which projects to fund within that amount," Senator Durbin says.
On paper, the tens of billions of dollars in earmarks approved each year – estimates for fiscal year 2006 range from $29.3 billion to more than $64 billion – barely make a dent in an annual $2.57 trillion budget.
But getting those earmarks through the process is changing the culture of Washington. "People who would otherwise be fiscal conservatives end up supporting legislation they might not otherwise support because they become addicted to earmarks," says Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, an opponent of earmarks. He went to the floor for a vote on a bill to cap federal spending with 118 cosponsors and wound up with 88 votes, because the chairmen of appropriating subcommittees "were sent to the floor to work members to vote against this legislation," he says. "Members told us: They're threatening my earmarks."
Moreover, earmarks are taking up a huge chunk of members' time. "The task of selecting a share of the 15,000 annual pork projects has become an all-consuming endeavor for most congressional offices," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, as he opened a hearing on earmark reform March 16. Earmarks are now the "trading currency" of the Congress, he says.