By Kevin Bogardus and Erik Wasson
Lobbyists are seeing dollar signs with the return of “regular order” to Capitol Hill.
They are brimming with anticipation for a year of hearings, markups and floor votes on appropriations legislation that would decide how the government divvies up around $1.1 trillion in federal cash.
“In terms of morale on K Street, it’s great. In terms of business, yeah, if bills are moving, that creates opportunities,” said former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates.
Work on the 12 annual appropriations bills has been largely fruitless since 2011, as Congress careened from one crisis to the next. Lawmakers passed a series of continuing resolutions (CR) that extended government funding but left spending on autopilot.
That was bad news for lobbyists, as it left them little opportunity to try and influence where federal dollars are spent and less leverage to pressure officials who are writing regulations.
“From a lobbying point of view, there is very little you can do to lobby a CR. Every now and then, they slip in a provision or two, but you can’t start a new program or a new project,” said Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Co.
Now lawmakers plan to move all 12 spending bills before October for the first time since 1994.
Walsh, who is also a former member of the House Appropriations Committee, said a return to “regular order” would benefit the country and open up new possibilities for K Street.
“There is opportunity for spending. There is opportunity for authorization. There is opportunity for message sending. … There is opportunity for Congress to tell the administration that they disagree with them on something, which is something our clients will be interested in.”
The appropriations process presents a target-rich environment for K Street and its clients, and it has long been one of the influence industry’s biggest moneymakers.
More than 3,000 clients reported lobbying on the budget and appropriations in 2013 — the most heavily lobbied issue of the year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Marlowe said the appropriations hearings and markups are “pressure points,” where advocates can persuade lawmakers to take action.
“These will be milestones that won’t be grave markers anymore,” Marlowe said. “Instead of posturing, Congress will actually be trying to accomplish something.”
The revival of the appropriations process couldn’t come at a better time for K Street shops, which have seen their revenue fall amid the gridlock in Congress.
“Clients have lost faith in Washington. That’s why the lobbying numbers are down. They don’t think their goals are achievable in Congress so they are going elsewhere,” said Mike Fulton, a former House Appropriations Committee aide and president of the Arnold Agency’s Washington office.
Gordon Adams, a defense expert at American University, said the omnibus bill shows how K Street benefits, when appropriators wield the power of the purse.
Adams noted that appropriators found funding for items like the C–130J plane, the Global Hawk drone and the M-1 tank, when they made use of war funding to cover the Pentagon’s operating budget.
“Whenever the appropriators are in charge, they are the grown-ups and the masters of detail and process. K Street should be very happy,” he said.
Watchdog groups are also expecting to be more active as they scrutinize the coming spending bills, and foresee floor fights with lobbyists working to protect pet projects.
“It helps traditional lobbyists, and it helps other organizations that would like to reform what government is doing,” said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
The increased lobbying on both sides will put members of Congress in a tricky position.
“Do they want to be viewed as beholden to special interests, or do they want to be looking more for ways to control spending?” said Schatz, who said his group would battle over defense programs and duplicative initiatives that were identified in Government Accountability Office reports in recent years.
The looming midterm elections could throw a wrench in the works for appropriators, as lawmakers will have the election on their minds when casting their votes.
“There will be primary squabbles and people doing things for all the wrong reasons to get votes. You have a debt-ceiling debate coming up too, and that could throw us out of sync again,” Fulton said.
Nevertheless, Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense called regular order “a boon for everyone.”
“Regular order provides an opportunity for both advocacy and scrutiny,” Ellis said. “With regular order, budget watchdogs will have months to illuminate wasteful or bad policies and special interest giveaways. Sure, K Street lobbyists can try to get more in there, but like it or not, that’s part of the process.”
Others said they don’t expect a lobbying bonanza in 2014. Cord Sterling with the Aerospace Industries Association said defense programs might attract more K Street attention but doubted there would be a surge in lobbying.
“Those who are interested in the programs are always working on them,” said Sterling, a former Senate Armed Services Committee aide.
Sterling noted earmarks are gone and likely not to come back, so that part of the lobbying business will remain idle.
Winslow Wheeler, once a long-time Senate aide, said lobbyists have learned to adapt to lean times in Washington.
“Everything is good for K Street, bad times, good times, CRs,” Wheeler said. “They are smart guys; they adjust.”