Earmarks: Tip of the Iceberg?


Three paragraphs jumped out at me from the final chapter of Robert G. Kaiser’s excellent Washington Post series, Citizen K Street:

Cassidy helped change Washington by shaping the culture of congressional earmarks that became so important in the last dozen years. Earmarks directly transfer the government’s money to particular institutions and interests. He and his original partner helped invent the idea of lobbying for earmarked appropriations — an idea that made Cassidy rich and fed a system of interdependence between lobbyists and Congress that thrives today.

And, later in the piece…

Cassidy and his original partner, Kenneth Schlossberg, demonstrated its efficacy by devising ways to win earmarked appropriations from Congress for their clients, originally colleges, universities and medical centers. As Cassidy’s clients began to win appropriations of $10 million, $15 million, $20 million and more in the 1980s, new lobbying firms emerged to compete with Cassidy. An increasing number of institutions and local governments looked for help to win earmarks of their own. The lobbying boom had begun.

It created a new career option for the men and women who had come to Washington to work in the government and could now cash in on their experience. Until the 1980s, the typical career of an aide on Capitol Hill lasted many years, even decades; today the average is probably a few years. “Going downtown” — becoming a lobbyist — has become a ritual, and not just for staff assistants. Numerous members of the House and Senate who retire or lose reelection bids have become lobbyists as well. More than 200 former members of Congress are registered to lobby their former colleagues. This is a new phenomenon in American history.

I think all this is true, and I would guess that the American people as a whole were the last to be let in on the new rules of the game. I can remember, after Rep. Robert S. Walker retired from Congress in 1997, that my parents and other constituents of his in my hometown of Lancaster, Pa., were surprised that, rather than return to the district, he chose to stay in Washington (where he’s described as a “super lobbyist”). I wonder if, in other districts besides Pennsylvania’s 16th, folks wonder why that Congressman who used to begin campaign rallies by talking about how much he loved coming home chose to “retire” to Washington, D.C. …

But back to earmarks. The Office of Management and Budget counted 13,496 earmarks costing more than $19 billion in fiscal year 2005. That’s the extent of money directed to specific projects and recipients–whether federal, state or local governments, for profit or nonprofit organizations, public or private universities, by Congress, in appropriations bills, authorization bills, or bill reports. That same year, according to FedSpending.org, the government committed some $384.2 billion to contractors alone, plus another $508 billion in grants and other assistance to state and local governments, nonprofits, universities, for profits, and other entities. That’s a lot of money, even in Washington–and lobbyists aren’t just asking members of Congress for it.

Some 632 clients hired lobbyists who reported contacts with the Department of Homeland Security in 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The lobbyists for 1,026 clients reported contacting the Defense Department. About what precisely they were interested in, or asking for, we have very little idea, but I would be willing to bet that federal contracting was on the minds of a few of them.

Form SF-LLL, if we can get our hands on some, should give us some idea of how many..