Pssst. K Street delivers the goods – for a price.

Washington lobbyists are in hot demand, as clients seeking budget favors – such as earmarks – multiply.

So you want to get an earmark. The best advice from many Washington insiders is to hire a lobbyist – and start early.

The phones start ringing in January to get on committee lists for "directed appropriations," or earmarks, to be added to spending bills and other legislation in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct 1. By mid-March, earmark request forms are due to the House Appropriations Committee.

But peak season for bagging earmarks is the end of the year, when hundreds of earmarks – many appearing for the first time – are slipped into vast spending bills as House and Senate versions are reconciled in conference committees.

The key to getting on the list is access. Some members say you don't need a lobbyist to get it. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says he once a told a lobbyist representing a city in his district to tell that client to "come to me directly."

But prospective clients aren't getting the message. In the past seven years, the number of groups that hired lobbyists to gain access to the federal budget and appropriations process has more than doubled from almost 1,500 to nearly 4,000. That's made winning congressional earmarks one of the fastest growing specialties on Washington's K Street lobby corridor.

"In 1998, there were some 1,498 entities – cities, towns, companies, etc. – that hired lobbyists on budget/earmarks/ appropriations issues. There were 3,903 in the final reports for 2005," says Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, citing Senate records. Although there is no way to find out exactly how many were just for earmark lobbying, it's likely that "most of them are," he adds.

Lobby shops are not shy about touting success on their websites for being able to win earmarks for their clients.

•Alcalde & Fay claims to have "secured billions of dollars in 'earmarked' appropriations and federal grants."

•Patton Boggs LLP cites success in securing "hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds" for its clients every year, including funding for programs "not requested in the Administration budget."

•Holland & Knight LLP, which notes more than $1.45 billion in federal appropriations for its clients since 2000, says that: "Although success is never guaranteed, the fees that our clients pay in pursuit of legislative appropriations are almost always greatly exceeded by the amount of funding they receive."

Such firms attribute their success to close ties with congressional staff, critical agencies, and the White House. Fees can range from retainers of $5,000 a month to more than $20,000 a month. Clients are often told to expect 18 months to two years to produce results on an earmark.

Lawmakers close to the process say it's wrong to see the role of lobbyists as simply peddling influence. "When a university president comes to me and says: 'We have a series of issues where we need help, often I say to him: 'You need a lobbyist – not for influence, but for understanding," says Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah, who chairs the Agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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.' "

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.

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