A faithful Grant Writing Confidential reader and fellow grant writer, Katherine, sent an email wanting my take on a public agency hiring a lobbying firm to seek federal earmarks. For those not familiar with the term, it means getting a member of Congress to slip a favored local project into a bill, bypassing normal reviews and restrictions. The Seattle Times recently ran a nice article on the subject featuring our own Representative Jim McDermott, who is skilled at the art of earmarks. The only member of Congress I know doesn’t push earmarks is John McCain. For the rest of Congress, earmarks are a way of funneling money into often dubious projects, such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.
Back to the local school district where Katherine lives, which decided to hire a DC lobbying firm for $60K/year to get earmarks. She suspects this is a scam. I have no idea whether this particular lobbying firm is up to no good, but in my experience hiring lobbyists to chase earmarks will make the lobbyists happy and lead to lots of free lunches and dinners for public officials visiting DC to “confer” with their lobbyist and legislators, though it is unlikely to end with funding.
A small anecdote will demonstrate this phenomenon. About 20 years ago, when I was Development Manager for the City of Inglewood,* I was directed by the mayor via the city manager to contract with a particular DC lobbying firm to chase earmarks. Since the city manager and I knew this was likely a fool’s errand, we agreed to provide a token contract of $15K. I accompanied the mayor and a few others to DC for the requisite consultation with the firm. About 10 in morning, we strolled from the Mayflower Hotel over to K street, where all the lobbyists hang out, and were ushered into a huge conference room with a 25 foot long table.
Over the next two hours or so, just about every member of the firm wandered in to opine on potential earmarks. Around 12:30, we all repaired to an expensive DC restaurant (are there any other kind?) for steaks and cocktails. We had a fine meal and I met then former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had morphed into a lobbyist himself and was taking his clients out for lunch. When I got back to Inglewood, I received an invoice from our lobbyist which exceeded the contract amount. Our contract paid for less than one meeting in DC and resulted in no earmarks. But I had a great time, since it is always fun to visit DC using somebody else’s money.
That experience schooled me on earmarks and about why Inglewood had gone about acquiring them in the wrong way. If a public agency wants to try for an earmark, the agency can do so just by contacting the chief field deputy for Senator Foghorn Leghorn. Congressional field deputies know all there is to know about the earmark process. If your representative is in a mood to support your project (e.g., needs help to get re-elected and wants to say they are standing up for schools), they will fall all over themselves directing their staff to push the earmark. If they don’t want to for some reason, all the lobbyists in the world won’t force the issue. In that situation, the school district might just as well use the money to buy lotto tickets in hopes of funding the project, rather than hiring a lobbyist. Furthermore, going through the congressional field office will avoid the EDGAR problems described below.
Another problem is that if you have almost all of the 535 members of Congress promoting various earmarks, the chances of your particular project being included are pretty slim. This is another reason we don’t recommend pursuing earmarks. If Katherine’s school district really wants to fund education projects, this is not the way to go about it. Instead, they should hire an experienced grant writing firm, like Seliger + Associates, to help them refine and prioritize project concepts, conduct grant source research, and start submitting high quality, technically correct proposals. If the concepts have merit, they will eventually be funded. The Department of Education and others provide billions of dollars in actual grant funds every year. This is a larger, more reliable source of funding than earmarks.
Finally, if an organization is lobbying, it can end up closing off grant funds. The “Education Department General Administrative Regulations” (EDGARs) govern grants and contracts made through the Department of Education, and they’re designed to prevent corruption, kickbacks, and the like. Subpart F, Appendix A, deals with lobbying. It says:
The undersigned certifies, to the best of his or her knowledge and belief, that:
(1) No Federal appropriated funds have been paid or will be paid, by or on behalf of the undersigned, to any person for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of an agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with the awarding of any Federal contract, the making of any Federal grant, the making of any Federal loan, the entering into of any cooperative agreement, and the extension, continuation, renewal, amendment, or modification of any Federal contract, grant, loan, or cooperative agreement.
And so on, which you can read if you’re a masochist. EDGAR basically means that an agency which pursues lobbying can end up screwing itself out of the much larger and more lucrative grant world.
Katherine has also found questionable math regarding the particular lobbyists’ probable efficiency, and the lobbyist also makes the dubious claim that it has a “90% success rate.” But what does “success” mean in this context? Does that mean 90% of clients get some money? If so, how much? And from who? And through which means? Seliger + Associates doesn’t keep “success” numbers for reasons explained in our FAQ. We constantly see grant writers touting their supposed success rate and know that whatever numbers they pitch are specious at best for the reasons described in the preceding link.
Public agencies hiring lobbyists for earmarks is often a case of being stuck on stupid.
* “Inglewood always up to no good,” as 2Pac and Dr. Dre say in California Love.