How to win contracts and influence Congress


Somewhere in America a lobbyist, or maybe a contractor, is writing a book with that title. Lobbyists, freely seeking contracts with little or no restraint, appear to have perfected a system, with their clients, of winning contracts and gaining influence. TPM Muckraker — posting about yesterday’s Vanity Fair expose on the seedy world of defense contracts (“a window into Babylon or the last stages of Rome”) — explained the business model of companies seeking contracts in Washington: “First you get the congressman, then you get the earmarks, and then you get the money.”

Brent Wilkes, now the focus of the ongoing Duke Cunningham investigation, was at the birth of the earmark boom in Washington. Wilkes’ first lesson in politics came as a Central American pimp for anti-Communist conservative congressmen visiting the brutal death squads that the President was illegally funding. His lesson: congressmen will be your friend if you give them what they want. Wilkes went on to work for Audre, Inc., a document converting company, and began to press Audre’s CEO Tom Casey to spend tens of thousands of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions and set up an office, headed by Wilkes, in Washington. Casey didn’t like the idea so Wilkes started his own competing firm, ADCS, Inc., and began showering [sw: Duke Cunningham] with money like the congressman was a breathing ticker-tape parade. Unlike Casey, Wilkes saw results. By lining the pockets of his local representatives Cunningham, [sw: Duncan Hunter], and [sw: Jerry Lewis] Wilkes found his firm with multimillion dollar contracts and a trio of congressmen willing to fight for more money.

“First you get the congressman, then you get the earmarks, and then you get the money.”

Some companies aren’t as lucky as Wilkes’ to have two high-powered Appropriations members and a powerful member of the Armed Services Committee in their region. Others have to go out and find friends like these. A recent article in Bloomberg showcases a new business model for companies sucking off the federal teat. ProLogic, Inc. is one of a “growing number of companies” that “locate facilities in lawmakers’ districts and shower them with campaign cash” to obtain earmarks. ProLogic, Inc. maintains offices in the districts of five members of the Appropriations Committee, Reps. [sw: Alan Mollohan] (D-W.Va.), [sw: John Murtha] (D-Pa.), [sw: David Obey] (D-Wis.), [sw: Pete Visclosky] (D-Ind.), and [sw: Frank Wolf] (R-Va.).

Ken Silverstein at Harper’s blog wrote a concise post about the close relationship that Visclosky and Mollohan share with both ProLogic and their lobbying firm, the PMA Group.

Consider here the tangled tale of Representative Pete Visclosky, an Indiana Democrat and a powerhouse on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, and a Washington lobby shop called The PMA Group. In November 2004, Visclosky secured a $900,000 earmark—the final tranche of $6.9 million in federal funding he won—to build the Purdue Technology Center, a high-tech “business incubator” in Merrillville, Indiana. Two months later, Visclosky participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the inauguration of the center.

According to the Bloomberg article, Visclosky has received $101,750 in campaign donations from the PMA Group since 1989. Visclosky’s former chief of staff is a lobbyist for the firm. Visclosky also received $16,000 from ProLogic during the 2003-04 election. In January of 2005 Visclosky “obtained $6.9 million in federal funds to build a technology center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, and then helped recruit ProLogic to set up shop there”. Since then the congressman has received $37,500 from ProLogic. There are similar trends with Congressmen Murtha and Mollohan. Both of these congressmen have ties to the PMA Group, Murtha especially, and receive large campaign contributions from ProLogic and from PMA.

On the lobbying side of the equation the PMA Group’s story of influence is the same as any lobbying firm. They hire highly competent former congressional aides and executive branch lobbyists who have relationships with powerful members of Congress. There’s Visclosky’s former chief of staff, a former staffer for Murtha, a close friend of Murtha’s, and numerous former Pentagon lobbyists. PMA’s PAC has also "doled out more than $250,000 to federal candidates" this election cycle.

A more recent case of ProLogic’s business model is happening right now in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. In December 2004 ProLogic announced that it was opening an office on Stevens Point’s Main Street. The congressman representing Stevens Point is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee [sw: David Obey]. Prior to the office opening in Obey’s district the congressman had received a total of $5,000 in his PAC’s account from ProLogic. However, this cycle, after the opening of the office, ProLogic has donated $21,000 to Obey’s campaign committee and $10,000 to Obey’s PAC. What comes next? “…then you get the earmarks, and then you get the money.” (For what it’s worth Obey has decried the excessive earmarking going on stating, “It turns the appropriations process into an ATM.”)

And ProLogic’s business model works too. A 2004 news article states that ProLogic has grown 400 percent since it was founded in 1995. That’s thanks to your tax dollars and their genius plan to move into your congressman’s district. Other companies are following the ProLogic business model. Miltec has all five of its offices located in districts of Appropriations members and ManTech recently opened up shop in House Minority Whip [sw: Steny Hoyer]’s (D-Md.) district.

Lobbyists are also practicing new techniques to gain more clients and more money. A New York Times article from last week noted the growing employment of lobbyists by towns, schools, cities, and municipalities to influence congressman who are obstensibly already supposed to represent them. According to the Times "the number of public entities hiring private firms to represent them in Washington has nearly doubled" since 1998 from 763 to 1,421. Many of these new clients had never sought, nor heard of earmarks until a lobbyist — acting like a lawyer chasing an ambulance — arrived at their doorstep "essentially offering big pots for a pittance." In many ways this shows a complete failure of government on all levels. The Times quotes Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, saying, "If you’re a mayor or a city councilman and you have to hire a lobbyist, what a gross admission of failure on your part … they’re elected to be, really, the lobbyist for the people." And on the other end congressmen must be so out of touch with their district’s needs — despite spending unprecedented amounts of time away from Washington — and so incapable of writing legislation that they need lobbyists as a go between. In the midst of this failure is a windfall for lobbying firms. Last year, corporations, trade associations, and interest groups broke another record for spending on lobbying topping $2.4 billion.

The ProLogic business plan, combined with the undue influence of lobbyists in today’s Washington, is a symptom of a much-larger problem than just earmarks or manipulative lobbying practices. I believe that Ellen, writing earlier about the Campaign Wikia and the vision of participatory politics, ran up against the same problem when considering the possibility imagined by Jimmy Wales: “the power of money in our political system is still the overwhelming determinative of who runs for office and who wins. Until that is changed, what candidates say and what they do will be driven by who finances their campaigns.”

Ultimately to get the earmarks you have to get the congressman. For some getting the congressman involves paying a lobbyist who already has the congressman. Than you can shower money on your local congressman or Senator or, if you need a particular representative, follow the ProLogic model and move into the districts of key Appropriators and then shower them with money. With this dynamic there will always be one constant: money showers. The earmarks don’t stop until the money showers do. Brent Wilkes knew that. And so did [sw: Duke Cunningham].