Sunday :: Jul 2, 2006

About those Earmarks?

by Mary

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they created the House of Representatives and the Senate to represent the people in their states and their districts. And for a long time they did. Now it turns out that local communities have found that the best (maybe only?) way to get the attention of their elected representatives is to pay lobbyists who have connections to the representatives and thereby get a special earmark for the community. This aspect of the relationship of our representatives to our communities has been exposed by the ongoing Jerry Lewis scandal where it seemed that many of the communities, hospitals, schools, etc., in his district have found that hiring Copeland Lowery, the lobbying company of Lewis' friend Bill Lowery, had become essential and lucrative in getting some of the tax dollars going to Washington to be routed back to the community.

Today the NY Times has advanced the story beyond the Jerry Lewis angle and has investigated the relationship between lobbyists and representatives in other states. In particular, they have looked at the relationship between the earmarks bestowed on the communities surrounding Tampa Bay, the lobbying company, Alcalde & Fay, which was founded by Hector Alcalde, former chief of staff to a congressman from Tampa, and the source of the earmarks, ie: their congressman, Representative C. W. Bill Young, who adds an earmark to the appropriations bills.

Before 1998, communities didn't need to hire lobbyists to get some funds sent back to the community. As the Times reported, here's what happened when a university in West Virginia hired a lobbyist to try to get a grant while Senator Byrd was head of the Appropriations Committee:

Mr. Byrd asked for an $18 million earmark, then withdrew the request after an article in The Washington Post revealed that the lobbying firm, Cassidy & Associates, was the origin of the university's idea for where to seek the money.

"I'm on the Appropriations Committee — if I can't do it, nobody can," The Post quoted Mr. Byrd as saying. "Why do you waste your money on a lobbyist when I'm being paid to be your senator?"

Today, lobbying companies that help local communities get the ear of their Representatives are doing very well. As the Times reports, 48 out of the 250 top-grossing firms in Washington, DC., have their leading source of revenue come from the state, local and tribal governments.

True conservatives are rather appalled at the change that has cropped up where local governments now must use a middle-man to get a slice of the pie.

Enlisted almost exclusively to land earmarks, lobbyists for local governments have boomed alongside a broader explosion in such appropriations, to 12,852 items worth $64 billion last year from 4,219 pet projects totaling $27.7 billion in 1998. The prolific earmarking does not change the overall budget's bottom line, but how the pie is cut: dollars are doled out, often in secret, at the whim of a lone legislator — often under the influence of a lobbyist — rather than through a competitive process.

It is against the law to use federal money to hire lobbyists. Yet local officials' near-unanimous justification is that the lobbyists pay for themselves many times over through the infusion of federal funds.

Ronald D. Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a frequent critic of earmarks, said he was most troubled at seeing firms solicit public clients with virtual guarantees that they could deliver "dollars for pennies" (or billions for millions).

"The mystery to me is the way they are able to promise returns," Mr. Utt said, pointing to the revolving door between Congressional appropriators' payrolls and lobby shops, as well as to lobbyists' generous campaign contributions. "It goes beyond mere influence peddling to just outright, classic third-world corruption."

In these days of shrinking dollars from the federal pie, the fact that lobbying companies who have a cosy relationship with the elected representatives are getting wealthy off of communities that have come to find their Representatives only respond to requests that come through the lobbyist friends points to how broken our government is these days. And it is a poor way to spend and allocate our money. What's missed in this process is whether we should be spending some of that money on keeping open the Technical Libraries at the EPA which benefits a broader group of Americans.

Mary :: 10:40 AM :: Comments (5) :: TrackBack (0) :: Digg It!