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Congressional pet projects boom -- in secret

Lobbyists with Hill ties key to record funding

Representative Roy Blunt (right) of Missouri and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have both earmarked funding for projects pushed by lobbying firms that employ former members of their staff.
Representative Roy Blunt (right) of Missouri and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have both earmarked funding for projects pushed by lobbying firms that employ former members of their staff. (Afp/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress inserted a record number of pet projects in last year's budget, feeding the burgeoning Washington lobbying industry that lawmakers in both parties insist they want to reform.

The local projects, which range from bike trails to specialized museums and educational activities by wild-turkey enthusiasts, are inserted in the budget in secrecy, during committee negotiations, and have no recorded sponsors -- a system geared toward allowing members to avoid accountability.

Congress, which spent $10 billion on 1,439 such projects in 1995, ran up $27.3 billion for a record 13,997 such projects -- known as earmarks -- last year, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste.

A Globe review of Senate records shows that the secretive earmark process has also become a boon for lobbyists, who sell clients on their ability to persuade members to insert pet projects into the budget.

The number of firms that registered for the first time to lobby on budget and appropriations issues grew from 388 in 1998 to 1,263 last year, according to Senate documents.

Further, the number of reports by lobbying shops pressuring Congress on those issues swelled from 1,447 in 1998 to 4,013 last year, according to the midyear Senate filings, suggesting that lobbyists see a growth industry in securing local projects for municipalities or interest groups.

The Globe review found that lobbyists arguing for the projects often have close connections to the members of Congress they are pressuring for cash. Many have worked on Capitol Hill -- including directly for the lawmakers they are lobbying -- and others contribute to the members' campaigns.

''It's become a pay-to-play system," said Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. ''If you don't have the money to hire a lobbyist, especially a former appropriations staffer, your chances of getting federal dollars are thrown through the window."

Though earmarks are, under congressional rules, impossible to trace, some members crow about their ability to deliver pet projects.

For example, Students in Free Enterprise, a group headquartered in the southwest Missouri district of Roy Blunt, the acting House majority leader, paid $80,000 last year to the lobbying form of Cassidy and Associates to win federal support. One of the lobbyists listed on the case is Gregg L. Hartley, Blunt's former chief of staff.

Last year, the group was rewarded with a total of $1 million in grants in two separate spending bills. Blunt, a leading candidate to be the permanent House majority leader, heralded one of the grants, and his staff said he supported the grant along with the state's senior senator, Republican Christopher S. Bond.

The close connections between Blunt and Hartley are not illegal, and a Cassidy and Associates spokeswoman said ''it's not inappropriate either." Spokeswoman Aimee Steel, speaking on behalf of Hartley, said it was natural that lobbyists with connections to a particular member of Congress would be hired by a client whose interests are in that district.

''Most lobbyists represent clients with ties to the members' offices where they once worked," Steel said.

Blunt himself has called for a more open earmarking process, saying the budget items -- which are now slipped into bills after nonpublic requests by individual members to Appropriations Committee leaders -- should be identified by the lawmakers asking for the money, the name and address of the intended recipient, and a justification for the spending.

But like many other lawmakers in both parties, Blunt believes the earmarks themselves are not inherently wrong and should not be banned.

''Congressman Blunt believes that while more accountability and transparency are needed in the system, elected officials are better able to make decisions regarding funding of local needs than Washington bureaucrats," said Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger.

But like Blunt, many other elected officials choose to reward projects associated with their former staff members. Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, put out a news release last month pointing out several items he was able to secure in the defense appropriations bill, including $5 million for a company called Night Vision Devices, based in Lehigh County, Pa., to produce miniature hand-held thermal imagers for the military.

To press its case in Washington, Night Vision retained IKON Public Affairs, and two of the lobbyists on the Night Vision account previously held senior posts on Specter's staff. IKON has also donated to Specter's campaign.

Craig Snyder, one of the lobbyists and a former Specter staff member, said the project was inserted as an earmark because the Defense Department's procurement system is done with a long lead time and doesn't accommodate immediate needs, such as the night-vision equipment required for war. Specter's support for the project was natural, from both a policy and a constituent perspective, Snyder said.

But Congress-watchers say the relationships, while entirely legal, have gotten too cozy, allowing an elite group of well-connected lobbyists to collect big fees from clients, draw on access to their former bosses to promote special-interest projects, and then reward the lawmakers who fund the projects -- often in secret -- with campaign contributions.

''You have sort of a perpetual motion system that kind of feeds on itself and is closely linked. One could almost view the lobbying community as an informal subsidiary of Congress," said Ronald Utt, a budget analyst with The Heritage Foundation, which advocates trimmed-down federal spending. ''This is going to be really difficult to break without some really dramatic exercise," he said.

Utt said the system encourages lobby shops to target small organizations or municipalities, promising to win federal grants worth several times the price of the lobbying fees. The competitive nature of the earmarks makes even small organizations spend big money on lobbyists, he said.

Even the National Wild Turkey Federation has a lobbyist. The group spent $100,000 last year to lobby on appropriations, winning at least $242,000 for a project slipped into the agriculture spending bill. Donna Leggett, the group's director of development, said the turkey enthusiasts need Washington representation to help secure funding for educational programs the organization holds. ''There's no shakedown here," she said.

Lawmakers in both parties say that while they see the flaws in the system, they would be depriving their own constituents if they didn't play along.

''I think Congress ought to decide not to do them [earmarks], except in extraordinary cases," said Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem, who on his own website takes credit for bringing several federal grants to his district. But in the meantime, ''when that's the way the money is being distributed, you do feel as though you ought to try to get [local Massachusetts] projects the attention they need."

Lawmakers get pressure from both sides, he said, with constituent groups clamoring for federal cash and appropriations chairmen dangling local projects in front of lawmakers in exchange for a vote on the spending bills.

''They don't say it to you explicitly, but the word gets around that people who don't vote for a particular bill will get cut out," Tierney said.

Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican trying to make it harder to slip in earmarked projects, said it is not true that constituents will punish representatives who don't bring back cash for the district. Flake noted that he had a primary opponent who accused him of not ''bringing home the bacon," winning the endorsements of several mayors with the allegation. But Flake was reelected anyway.

Flake is sponsor of a bill that would require that such items be specified in a bill, with the names of their sponsors identified, and be subject to congressional debate. Flake said it would not be enough simply to make public which members have requested which earmarks, if there were no way to challenge them.

''If we had any shame, there wouldn't be a problem," said Flake, who said he does not request earmarks for his district.

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