Capitol Hill insiders love to tell the story about how Senator Robert C. Byrd once killed a multimillion-dollar federal building project for his home-state West Virginia University because the public school had hired a lobbyist to help wrangle the cash. Byrd's message: As senator, it's his job to win federal dollars for West Virginia.
The incident, which Byrd's office confirms, occurred in 1989. The Democrat, now 88, still resents lobbyists hired to supplement his prolific pork-gathering. But today the halls of Congress teem with private lobbyists representing states, cities, and all manner of taxpayer-supported institutions.
Anyone who has taken high school civics knows that state and local governments have a corps of 535 professional advocates in Washington: our senators and congressmen. But as Congress has moved toward passing more narrowly targeted spending projects, known as earmarks, a niche lobbying business has sprouted to steer that money to local interests.
Some lawmakers resent this privatization of the pork barrel, saying that lobbying fees drain municipal coffers without much of a payoff. But a surprisingly large number of legislators have resigned themselves to the outsourcing of federalism. Some say that given the press of other legislative duties, they welcome any help they can get.
FIGHTING FOR A FAIR SHARE
Central Florida's Orange County is one satisfied lobbying customer. It paid the Washington firm PodestaMattoon $120,000 last year for help winning more than $24 million in federal aid, mostly for road improvement. The county's top official, Mayor Richard T. Crotty, likes that return on investment: "We need to be there on the ground floor fighting for our fair share, and the best way to do that is to hire a lobbyist in Washington," he says.
More than 800 state and local governments, or their arms, employed a lobbyist on Capitol Hill in 2005, some more than one, according to a count done for BusinessWeek by the Web site lobbyists.info. Municipalities can't be blamed "for seeing more and more [earmarked] projects and saying, 'we're going to do everything in our power to line up with that,"' says Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.). In fiscal 2006, Congress passed bills containing more than 12,000 earmarks; as recently as 1998, the number was just over 2,000.
Some lawmakers object to lobbyists taking credit for dollars that would flow to the local level whether or not private advocates were on patrol. "It's a waste of money," says Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.). He says that he and other members of his delegation are perfectly capable of winning their state what it deserves. None of the towns or counties in his district employs lobbyists, although Massachusetts does have one, federal records show.
Orange County began hiring lobbyists in the early '90s to seek more federal aid for roads and other infrastructure needed to deliver growing crowds of tourists to theme parks in the Orlando area. The Washington firm Alcalde & Fay, which specializes in the municipal niche, handled the Orange County account for about a decade. Orange County typically paid Alcalde $80,000 a year in the '90s and early 2000s, according to federal records. There were solid results, including $350,000 to improve an abandoned naval facility and $449,000 for a special court for drug cases.
But by 2004, Orange County had grown dissatisfied. Like some other firms focusing on modestly paying municipal assignments, Alcalde had a large volume of government clients. It represented more than two dozen Florida interests, including Seminole County to Orange's north and Osceola to the south. In the view of Orange County officials, Alcalde's advocacy was spread a little too thin, and the firm merited credit for only one score in 2003-04: $200,000 for a senior citizen center.
Orange County shifted its business to PodestaMattoon, which stressed that it didn't represent any other municipal clients in Florida. Podesta also noted that several of its members had recently worked for the congressional committees that control spending. Anchoring Alcalde's failed effort to keep the account was a former Florida congressman whose Capitol Hill days were further in the past: L.A. "Skip" Bafalis, now 76, who served from 1973 to 1983.
Orange County's new lead lobbyist from Podesta is Elizabeth Morra, 41, who worked as communications director for the powerful House Appropriations Committee until leaving for the private sector in 2001. She represents such corporations as Altria Group (MO) and BellSouth Corp. (BLS), and her only other government client is New Mexico.
Alcalde's president, Kevin J. Fay, says his firm "did a very good job for Orange County." Referring to Alcalde's representing potential rival Florida counties, he says the firm lobbies for each client's projects on their own merits.
Orange County Representative Corrine Brown says outside advocates can make a real difference. Brown, a Democrat, explains that lobbyists help keep track of the complicated and voluminous appropriations process. "Your staff just cannot do it" because of other commitments, she says. Morra mobilized local business leaders to write letters of support for Orange County's road improvement effort and confirmed that each region's member of Congress pegged the money as their top priority for the appropriations committee.
Brown appreciates the lobbyist's art from a personal perspective. Her daughter, Shantrel Brown, works for Alcalde & Fay. The younger Brown has represented Florida A&M University and Miami-Dade County, but her mother says there is no intrafamily arm-twisting.
Republican Ric Keller, who also represents part of Orange County, agrees that lobbyists can be helpful, but only up to a point. "I'm going to bust my butt to help Orange County, whether they hire a lobbyist or not," he says. Keller supported all of the items the county wanted from last year's federal appropriations process, except for one: a Rec-'n'-Roll mobile after-school center, which he thought was unnecessary. But in the end, the county got the after-school center, too.
By Eamon Javers