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Jennifer Imo Discusses Earmarks, Federal Funding in Bloomberg Government

Today, Jennifer Imo, TFG’s Managing Partner of Client Services, shared insights from her ten years of experience securing earmarked funds.

View the full article below:

Lobbyists Temper Expectations for Clients Seeking Earmark Boom

  • Members ask tougher questions than before 2011, lobbyist says
  • Museum funding has potential for political risk, Kingston says

By Jack Fitzpatrick / June 9, 2022 05:05AM ET / Bloomberg Government

Washington lobbyists are telling clients seeking congressional earmarks to temper their expectations, look to senior appropriators for help, and weigh the political appeal of their requests as lawmakers prepare for a second year of earmarks after a 10-year hiatus.

While lawmakers are preparing for an increase in earmark funding in fiscal 2023, K Street observers say local governments, nonprofits, and other clients should keep their expectations in check and make sure they can demonstrate strong political support for their requests.

The lack of agreement on top-line spending figures and the upcoming midterm elections make for an uncertain outlook in the coming year, they say. Lawmakers are also more sensitive about avoiding politically embarrassing earmarks than they used to be, according to Brent Heberlee, a lobbyist at Ballard Spahr LLP.

“The Appropriations Committee is not afraid to ask difficult questions about a given project,” Heberlee said in a phone interview. “We really didn’t see that a decade or more ago. Projects went in and the committee took them at face value, for the most part.”

 

Photographer: Ting Shen/Bloomberg

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) speaks during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., on May 17.

Individual lawmakers are also being more scrupulous than they used to be rather than relying on the committees to filter out bad requests, according to Jennifer Imo, managing partner of client services at The Ferguson Group.

“In the past, members would just throw everything at the subcommittee and just see what stuck,” Imo said in a phone interview.

Lawmakers routinely added earmarks to spending bills until they were banned in 2011, when Republicans took control of the House following the 2010 Tea Party wave election. Lawmakers brought them back in the fiscal 2022 appropriations bills, with more restrictions.

For-profit entities aren’t eligible for earmarks, lawmakers must post their requests on their websites, and earmarks are limited to 1% of discretionary spending. Lawmakers operated carefully in the fiscal 2022 legislation (Public Law 117-103) signed in March, including $9.7 billion in earmarks — far less than the $15 billion that would have equated to 1% of discretionary funding.

For more on fiscal 2022 earmarks: Colleges, Cops, Airports Among Earmark Winners in 2022 Funding

There may be more earmark funding available in fiscal 2023. House appropriators allowed members to submit 15 requests each, up from 10 in fiscal 2022. And House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said there’s been an increase in requests. In total, 344 members submitted earmark requests for the upcoming bills, according to a list published by the House Appropriations Committee.

“There are increasing numbers coming in,” DeLauro said at a hearing last month. “Let me just put it this way: We’re going to do the best we can to see how many that we can get done this go ‘round, because we understand the value, and we understand the need.”

Lawmakers Dial Up Earmark Scrutiny

Those requesting earmarks shouldn’t bank on a huge influx of money, said Heberlee, who represents local governments and nonprofits.

“The project may have substantial needs for funding, but we counsel clients that this is not the ‘be all, end all’ for your project,” Heberlee said.

Clients can help their chances of getting federal funds if they exceed the typical grant requirements for state or local matching funds, which demonstrates strong local political support, said Imo, who’s also federal director of the National Association of Towns and Townships.

It helps to seek funding that would push a project across the finish line, rather than start a new project. Members see a political advantage in securing funds for a nearly finished project, Imo added.

“They like to cut the ribbon,” she said.

Those requesting earmarks also shouldn’t expect to receive multiple years of funding, unlike in previous eras, according to Rich Gold, who leads Holland & Knight’s Public Policy & Regulation Group.

“There really was a philosophy in the olden days that you could take a $10 million road project and get three years of funding and get it done,” Gold said in a phone interview. “Members don’t seem interested in that, and the committees really don’t want to get into that.”

Lawmakers will also reject projects that don’t have clear political support from multiple levels, said Jack Kingston, a lobbyist at Squire Patton Boggs and a former Republican lawmaker from Georgia who served on the House Appropriations Committee. Members who include an earmark in a spending bill want to be able to tell skeptical local journalists, “Call Mayor Jones, call County Supervisor Smith, call the commander at the military installation,” Kingston said.

Midterms Cloud Prospects

The midterm elections add uncertainty to the outlook for fiscal 2023. Republicans were divided over whether to participate in the new earmarking process, ultimately leaving it up to individual members to decide. GOP leaders will likely coordinate closely with top Republican appropriators to make sure no politically embarrassing measures make it past the committee, Kingston said.

Lawmakers avoided political pitfalls in the first year of the new earmark system, but they’ll need to be careful as colleagues submit more requests. In some cases, lawmakers included earmarks in the fiscal 2022 spending package that could garner negative press — fairly or unfairly, Kingston said.

Funding for small museums could be risky, because they sound obscure and trivial, and “that’s the kind of article that newspapers like to write,” Kingston said. The fiscal 2022 spending package included funding for small or niche museums such as the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, the Old Stone House Museum in Vermont, and the National Atomic Testing Museum in Nevada.

The first year of the new earmarking system showed how important it is to seek help from senior appropriators, Kingston said, pointing to Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Vice Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

“In a huge budget like ours, there are hidden corridors of money, untapped veins of funding that people don’t know about unless they’ve been there for a while,” Kingston said.

Learning the top priorities of individual members is especially important when seeking earmarked funding, Imo said.

Lobbyists have also learned to pitch funding to lawmakers in a way that aligns with their ideology — a much different process than when executive branch bureaucrats make the final funding decisions for grants.

If seeking funding for a road project that runs through both Republican and Democratic districts, Democrats would look for “traffic-calming that reduces greenhouse gas emissions,” while Republicans would be interested in “economic development to help businesses along the corridor,” Gold said.

“It’s almost like you’re speaking French to one office and Spanish to another,” Gold said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at jfitzpatrick@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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