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Earmarking -- A Win-Win for Lobbyists and Politicians

January 29, 2006|Janet Hook and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Jean Mayer, a renowned nutritionist, had just become president of Tufts University in 1976 when he made an audacious decision: Defying the academy's disdain for nitty-gritty politics, Mayer agreed to hire a professional lobbyist to try to secure money from Congress to build a nutrition research center.

His hired gun was Gerald S.J. Cassidy, a former Senate aide who had recently started a lobbying business. Cassidy and his partner, rich with political connections, managed to get funding toward a $32-million project set aside for the Massachusetts university in a big congressional bill.

It was an auspicious beginning for Cassidy's business, and the dawn of a new era in Washington influence-peddling.

Cassidy was pioneering a concept of lobbying that has become part of the warp and woof of Congress: Thousands of lobbyists now earn their keep by seeking rifle-shot appropriations for a particular client, rather than lobbying for programs and policies affecting an entire industry or sector.

This "earmarking" strategy has long been derided as pork-barrel spending and decried by critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Yet the practice has exploded in recent years. The number of projects earmarked in Congress' annual appropriations bills has grown from 1,439 in 1995 to nearly 14,000 in 2005, according to the watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste.

Last year's highway bill alone contained 6,371 projects, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, another watchdog. By contrast, when President Reagan vetoed a highway bill in 1987, he complained because 152 projects had been inserted.

Earmarking is under new scrutiny as Congress looks for ways to tighten its lobbying and ethics rules in response to recent scandals, including the corruption investigation involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Critics say that earmarks -- often inserted into bills at the last minute, without public scrutiny or even notice -- are an invitation to corruption because they allow lawmakers to cater to moneyed special interests without accountability.

President Bush last week joined the clamor for a crackdown, saying: "There needs to be earmark reform."

But earmarking is a prerogative fiercely guarded by lawmakers and by a lucrative lobbying industry that has sprung up around the process.

Thirty years after Cassidy hung out his shingle, Washington's K Street is now home to a subculture of well-connected lobbyists who make millions by soliciting clients with promises of appropriations -- and by encouraging lawmakers' belief that such projects will help them win support back home.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the number of firms registered to lobby on budget and appropriations increased from 1,498 in 1998 to 4,013 by mid-2005. Some firms specialize in getting earmarks -- the spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, John Scofield, calls them "earmark factories."

"Cassidy knew a good thing when he saw it; others looked over his shoulder," said one former appropriations aide who now lobbies for earmarks. "Now, everybody's doing the same thing. We're all stepping on each other."

Of all the lobbying restrictions being considered in Congress, elimination of earmarking may be the most difficult to achieve.

Pork-barrel politics has been part of legislative maneuvering for centuries. A traditional part of a lawmaker's job is to "bring home the bacon."

Lawmakers also argue that earmarking is part of Congress' constitutional power of the purse.

"The individual member's voice in this process is exactly why the people elected us," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).

"Earmarking has been going on since the time of George Washington," said Aimee N. Steel, a spokeswoman for Cassidy. "If Congress chooses to make particular decisions about particular projects rather than have bureaucrats make them, it is perfectly appropriate."

Generally, Congress directs money toward broad purposes -- highway or school construction, for example -- without singling out individual projects. Then, government agencies judge applicants based more on set criteria than by the political clout of their sponsors.

Specific projects backed by powerful members have often been funded, but earmarking now has become so rampant that even Lewis agrees that the practice has gotten out of control. His panel received 34,687 requests for projects from House members last year.

Lewis last week proposed limiting the number of projects each lawmaker could request and requiring those requests to be made in signed, public letters.

Earmarks have skyrocketed for a number of reasons.

More than a decade ago, while Democrats still controlled Congress, the leaders of some House and Senate appropriations subcommittees -- including Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.) and Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) -- opposed earmarks and kept them out of the bills they oversaw.

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