by Paul Thacker
A constant stream of news and gossip floods Washington’s information channels about Hill staffers leaving Congress for higher paying jobs “downtown.” For the insider’s inside view, read “Politico Influence” a daily email from Politico that covers fundraisers, job changes by Hill staffers, and client “gets” by lobbying firms.
Below, a typical snippet:
FORMER HILL STAFFER JOINS PUBLIC RELATIONS FIRM: Tonya Allen, the former press secretary for Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.) has joined North Bridge Communications, a D.C.-based public relations and crisis communications firm, as an account executive. Allen is also a former senior manager of public affairs for the American Meat Institute.
The tone of “Politico Influence” contains little hint of scandal, and why should it? Washington is rife with lobbyists, fundraisers, and staff passing through the revolving door to better paying jobs off the Hill. Beltway insiders thrive on information—all the better if you are the first to congratulate a friend who landed a high paying gig at a lobby shop or law firm.
A recent paper by Jeff Lazarus and Amy McKay attempts to quantify a university’s success in acquiring earmarks after hiring a former Hill staffer or Members. In short, they examined whether universities which hired former Hill staff or Congressmen won more earmarks, meaning money that Congress says must be spent on a specific program. In simpler terms, does hiring a former Hill staffer or Congressman translate into a $2.3 million earmark for a new center on neuroscience or $5 million to help build new dorms?
The authors conclude, quite obviously I believe, that hiring former congressional insiders increased the likelihood of getting an earmark. According to their study, this greater success was 30 percent in 2002 and 35 percent in 2003.
Unfortunately, the study suffers from a series of methodological flaws, two of which the authors acknowledge. While the study lumps them together, former Congressmen have much more power than former staffers. They are rarely refused a meeting, even with current Congressmen, and are more likely to get an “ask.” Second, staffers themselves are not the same. When it comes to earmarks, a former staffer who worked on appropriations—better yet, the Appropriations Committee—has a better handle on the earmark process and better relations with the staffers and Members who make final approvals.
But the earmark process has a host of other variables, some of which cannot be quantified. Just because a university hired a former Congressman and then won an earmark does not prove that this lobbyist was involved. Regardless of how hard they lobby, universities in the districts of Representatives on the Appropriations Committee are more likely to get an earmark. And in some situations, a Congressman might request an earmark just because he likes a campus. Perhaps it’s his alma mater or he has a child attending the school.
Finally, there are some technical issues with lobbying records that make the influence process difficult to suss out. Namely, lobbyists self-report and requirements are vague. Plus, there are examples, like Newt Gingrich, who work to influence Congress but don’t bother to register. Even if they do register, there is no way to check if lobbyists are reporting accurately what they worked on. A lobbyist who won an earmark for his university could report that he worked on “educational issues.” But what does that mean?
University lobbying records list the names of all lobbyists, the issues or committees they lobbied, and lobbying expenses. Even if a lobbyist reports accurately that they lobbied the Appropriations Committee and the Science Committee and had $50,000 in expenses, we are still left wondering what happened. The lobbyist could have had one meeting with Appropriations staffers to get the earmark but countless meeting with House Science staffers on policy matters. Lobbying forms do not account for the difference in time or expenses.
Finally, the study suffers from a framing issue, hinting that earmarks are a sign of corruption or undue influence. For my project at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, I am interviewing 100 current and former staffers about life on the Hill. Just last week, I interviewed my 61st staffer. At no point during these interviews, some of which involved staffers who work on appropriations, did anyone say that they thought earmarks were wrong.
If anything, staff were indignant at the very question. While acknowledging that they’ve seen bad earmarks, they also cited ways the money benefited taxpayers: bridges, a homeless shelter for veterans, and other needed projects back home.
Two veteran Democratic staffers were much more blunt in their assessment of the recent ban on earmarks. One staffer said that the ban fit a neat, simplistic Washington narrative that Congress was out of control, instead of noting that Congressmen know much better how to target federal dollars back in their home district than the White House or federal agencies in Washington.
A staffer on the Appropriations Committee added that robbing Congress of the right to target dollars undermined the Constitutional separation of powers, leaving all spending decisions with the White House. Negative talk about earmarks implied that the White House budget was a “pure document” while congressionally targeted spending was “political.” Earmark reform was a way to score cheap political points and gave the false impression that politicos were tackling budget matters. Meanwhile real spending issues like bloated defense projects are ignored because they are politically complicated and protected by large corporate interests.
I don’t envy Lazarus and McKay. They’ve chosen a tough task. Just about every staffer I’ve interviewed thus far told me that lobbyists can be a problem; undue influence can be a problem.
The question is how to control it.