(Updates with new earmark details in second to last paragraph. A previous version corrected list of example earmarks secured by firm in third paragraph.)
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Van Scoyoc Associates, the lobbying firm that once reigned as a leader in nabbing local earmarks, was eager to get back into the game this year when Congress revived the practice of designating funding for lawmaker projects.
When the House released its latest round of spending requests, the firm was among the leaders on K Street in clinching projects, according to a Bloomberg Government review of data from the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate’s lobbying disclosures.
Its winners include a $1.75 million request for a Pinellas County, Fla., computer dispatch system for emergency response agencies, $1.5 million for a water treatment system for the city of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and $833,000 for Dallas Area Rapid Transit smart bus technology.
Lobbying firms such as Van Scoyoc are cashing in on the return of earmarks after Congress ended the practice’s decade-long ban. The firms are pitching their expertise in securing money for municipalities and nonprofit groups around the country that seek help navigating the time-consuming appropriations process on Capitol Hill.
“To have gone 10 years without earmarks, this is a big deal for communities to be able to weigh in with their members of Congress and talk about their needs for what they’re doing,” said Harry Glenn, a vice president at Van Scoyoc Associates.
The House Appropriations Committee last month released a list of all the project requests for fiscal year 2022 spending bills, roughly 2,800 in all. Though the way the projects were disclosed means the figure is likely much higher, at least 219 of them could be tied back to lobbyists, according to a review of that data and the Senate’s lobbying disclosures.
Lobbyists say the process was, at times, rushed and confusing, but are glad to have it back. Yet, they’re warning clients that persistent gridlock in Washington means securing a request for community funding doesn’t mean it will ultimately come through.
House appropriators have released a schedule with a July 12 deadline for getting all spending bills through committee. Prior to that, lobbyists will almost certainly be scrutinizing draft bills and committee reports released ahead of votes to see which projects made the cut. The projects will not be final until the House and Senate clear fiscal 2022 spending legislation and it’s signed by the president.
“Having a lobbyist or an advocate who focuses on this for you and knows the process and knows the staffers on the Hill, I just think it is helpful,” said Amy Smith, a policy adviser at Arnold & Porter who said she’s submitted hundreds of earmark requests in the past. Having a lobbyist isn’t going to be the determining factor, because a solid request or a member’s favored project or constituency tends to win the day, she added.
“It gives you a leg up on just submitting a competitive proposal,” said Smith in a telephone interview.
For Smith’s clients — Salt Lake Community College in Utah and Baylor University in Texas — the House process is their only hope. Their senators, all Republicans, have sworn off earmarks.
Banned when Republicans took control of the House in 2011, earmarks were associated with wasteful spending and corruption in Washington. Efforts to restore them fell short until this year despite members in both parties discussing a more limited revamp.
Under the revitalized process, projects can only be awarded to nonprofits and municipalities and, for the most part, have smaller price tags. Still, critics say the scaled-back practice invites abuse.
“We call it the most corrupt, costly and inequitable practice in the history of Congress and that will likely continue, because it’s hard not to have those problems involved in earmarks. It’s a very, very inside-the-beltway operation,” Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said in a telephone interview. “The limitation on providing funds to nonprofits and governments really doesn’t change anything because nonprofits don’t build bridges. That’s done by corporations and individuals that are allowed to donate to campaigns with members of Congress.”
Each project ranged in cost from $2,000 to $135 million. The median project amount was $950,000, and 88% of requests cost $3 million or less, according BGOV’s analysis.
Lobbyists say the municipalities and other groups had little time to push for their projects after House Democratic leadership hastily set up a modified earmark process earlier this year. They said shifting deadlines and criteria, as well as localities still dealing with the pandemic, compounded the difficulties.
While many lobbyists credited congressional staff for being helpful, many had no experience with funding requests and how to handle them.
“The process was, without a doubt, really challenging and difficult for local governments to navigate,” said Leslie Pollner, a co-leader of Holland & Knight’s local government group. “We’re grateful to have it back. So, convoluted process and all, I’ll take it.”
The firm, another top earner on K Street, scored wins for clients including Fort Valley State University, Placer County, Calif., and the cities of Fremont, Calif. and Aurora, Colo. $1.35 million was requested for Aurora for addressing homelessness, including tiny houses and access to showers, restrooms, laundry facilities, and other services.
“We’re very excited that many of our clients were included in the process because the process is very competitive,” said Holland & Knight senior policy adviser Shawna Watley, whose client Spelman College won a $319,500 earmark request to expand the SpelREADS literacy program that serves students in the Atlanta Public School system who struggle with reading. The earmark would give 150 additional students access to the program, according to the House Appropriations Committee data.
Lobbyists say there are still hurdles to overcome this year and that earmarks may not come back in full force for another year.
“It’s entirely possible that the FY 22 process is the dress rehearsal and the FY 23 process is opening night,” said Julie Minerva, a partner at Carpi & Clay. “There are so many kinks to work out,” she added, “and no guarantee that the end result will include projects.”
Some funding requests may still be rejected and leaders haven’t detailed how much money will be available to each member or to each House Appropriations subcommittee, Glenn said.
Lawmakers also will likely continue debating spending measures well past the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Negotiators are off to a slow start to the congressional budget process, so it’s likely lawmakers will rely on stopgap measures at least until December, Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. Stopgap measures don’t often include many new items, such as earmarks, or changes.
Clients “would hope that members of Congress see the value in providing these catalytic investments for projects that have been vetted and are enthusiastically supported by their communities,” said Jen Covino, president of Simon & Company. The firm exclusively has municipal clients, 10 of which received community project funding requests.
Those included a $2 million request for Madison, Wis., to fund a men’s homeless shelter able to serve at least 200 men per night. It’s needed, according to House Appropriations Committee data, because Covid-19 “forced the closure of the community’s only men’s shelter.” The firm also secured a $1 million earmark request for a “trash capture project” in San Leandro, Calif., that aims to keep debris out of the San Francisco Bay and other local waterways and creeks.
“We’ve forewarned our clients the possibility of further gridlock,” Covino said. “They’re aware that they need to plan for all contingencies with this, but I think they would be very eager and happy to see these really critically important projects move forward.”
Jorge Uquillas in Washington also contributed to this story.