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Hill reformers try to curb pet projects

Proposals pending before the House and Senate would force lawmakers to reveal their contacts with lobbyists and disclose their involvement in winning federal spending provisions or earmarks for constituents or special interests.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In October 2001, executives from a small start-up with a promising technology approached their congressman, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), for help getting Pentagon notice. Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was intrigued, but he said Logical Images Inc. needed professional help. He recommended a few lobbying firms, including Martin Fisher Thompson and Associates.

Within weeks the firm was hired, and this year the lobbying bore fruit: Logical Images secured $1.5 million in the 2006 defense spending bill to help the Army buy the company's computer-aided medical diagnostic system. The transaction bore fruit for Reynolds, too. Four months after his referral, Martin Fisher's money started flowing -- $6,000 to Reynolds and the NRCC.

These mutually beneficial transactions are legal under House ethics rules. As long as there is no explicit quid pro quo, lawmakers can channel clients to lobbyists, who help secure home-district pet projects, or "earmarks," and in turn, those lobbyists can send part of their fees back in the form of campaign contributions. But in the wake of the corruption scandals of former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, congressional reformers want to shine a light on dealings that have even a whiff of impropriety.

"Anyone receiving federal funding should have to disclose what their lobbying expenses are," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), a co-sponsor of the toughest proposed crackdown on earmarking. "I understand people hire lobbyists. Lobbyists can be helpful in clarifying the complexities in legislation. But we should not hesitate from disclosing those kinds of contacts."

Proposals pending before the House and Senate would force lawmakers to reveal their contacts with lobbyists and disclose their involvement in winning federal spending provisions or earmarks for constituents or special interests. If such disclosures become mandatory, some in Congress hope past practices will shrivel in the light of day. If not, they hope to win passage of provisions that would allow improperly secured earmarks to be struck from bills on the House or Senate floor. The Senate will take up earmark-reform proposals as early as today, when it turns its attention to a broad package of lobbying and ethics rule changes.

‘A cut of the money’
"As the amount of earmarking increases, the amount contributed to campaigns increases. The lawmaker is getting a cut of the money he helped generate," said Scott Lilly, a former chief Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Lawmakers say they have done nothing wrong, legally or ethically. L.D. Platt, a spokesman for Reynolds, called it "absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous" to suggest that lobbyist campaign contributions stemmed from the congressman's referrals. "Last time I checked, it's legal for lobbyists to give money to members of Congress," he said.

Home-district pet projects and other earmarks were once the intimate domain of lawmakers and their constituents, so much so that in 1989, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) zeroed out funding for a West Virginia University building project when he learned the school had hired a lobbyist to secure the money. But an analysis by The Washington Post and the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense found numerous links among earmarks, the lawmakers who championed them and the lobbyists who pushed them. Taxpayers for Common Sense found dozens of such links on this year's defense bill alone.

Lobbyists muscled their way into the process as pork-barrel earmarking was exploding, promising to make sure their clients' requests rose to the top of the pile. The Congressional Research Service counted 3,023 earmarks worth $19.5 billion in 1996 spending bills. By this year, the number had climbed to 12,852, valued at $64 billion. The number of clients registered with Congress on budget and appropriations matters has more than doubled since 1998, from 1,665 to 3,759 in 2004, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Lobbyists play such a central role in the appropriations process that many constituents believe they have no choice but to retain one if they hope to obtain funding for their project or organization.

"If we could have done it through Tom Reynolds alone, we would have," said Cynthia Fay, Logical Images' spokeswoman. But, she added, "A congressman trusts a lobbyist. He knows him personally. [The lobbyist] serves as a conduit."

Last year, Missouri-based Students in Free Enterprise hired Gregg Hartley, a former chief of staff to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), to help diversify its funding base, said Michelle West, the group's spokeswoman. Students in Free Enterprise paid Hartley $80,000 for the first six months of the year, according to lobbying records, and quickly secured $750,000 to expand its Springfield headquarters, and another $250,000 through the State Department to continue an international student exchange program.

In an interview, Blunt said he recommended that the group hire a lobbyist after they asked, but he said he did not recommend Hartley. He did not have to. The leaders of Students in Free Enterprise knew Hartley as well as they knew him, Blunt said.

"You never know what to advise people when they ask," Blunt said. "Members think, 'I'm the member. I'll help my constituents when I can.' But on the other hand, if they're thinking, 'I can't keep track of everything,' that's true, too."

"I remember them asking me what I thought," he continued. "I told them I wouldn't say not to bring a new player on the field if you think you can afford it."

AEA Technology Engineering Services Inc., a Pittsburgh firm with 55 employees, won four earmarks worth $5 million in the 2006 energy and water appropriations bill. Its lobbyist, Zel E. Lipsen, has contributed $3,500 to Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House energy and water development appropriations subcommittee, since 2003, and $1,500 to Rep. Peter Visclosky (Ind.), the panel's ranking Democrat, since 2001.

Advanced Acoustic Concepts Inc., a small Navy contractor, received at least $1.5 million in this year's defense appropriation, after winning the backing of Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee. PMA Group, the company's lobbying firm since 1998, has given Murtha $29,000, making it the lawmaker's third most generous patron, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

$5,000 to DCCC
On Jan. 21, 2005, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Reynolds's counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, boasted of winning more than $2 million in federal funding for the Chicago Public Schools. Four days later, Chicago Public Schools' lobbying firm, Holland & Knight LLP, contributed $5,000 to the DCCC, the first of three donations last year totaling $15,000.

Emanuel said he had never recommended Holland & Knight to the school system and was not aware that the firm or its lobbyists had contributed to the DCCC. Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for the Chicago Public Schools, said the system hired the lobby shop on the recommendation of a former Chicago city official who worked at the firm.

In years past, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Falcon Waterfree Technologies would have gone straight to its congressman, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), when it ran into a wall trying to sell its water-free urinals to the Navy. Instead, last year, it hired a go-between, American Defense International Inc., for what company executives viewed as a nominal $40,000. ADI lobbyists advised the firm to go to Ehlers anyway, who then secured a $1 million earmark. Ehlers spokesman Jon Brandt said the congressman was happy to help, but James Krug, the company's president and chief executive, still views the contract as money well-spent. "In a complicated Washington environment, it seemed prudent to hire an expert," he said.

Other lobbyists' clients agreed. "I don't know what has led us to this point as a country," said West of Students in Free Enterprise, "but you definitely seem to need a lobbyist these days."