Who’s Got the Juice, Part Two: How Do I Get an Earmark?

Congressionally legislated earmarks increased nationally from 958 in 1996 to 13,997 in 2005, according to data compiled by the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. Earmarks are inserted into spending bills by congressmen and senators — who usually remain anonymous — that directs who will be the recipient of federal dollars and the amount they receive, without going through a competitive bidding process.

In 2005, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget, funds earmarked by Congress totaled $19 billion. Colorado got $175.1 million, earmarked for both private companies and public entities.

So the obvious question arises: How do I get one? It’s a question I asked everyone I spoke to on this issue over the last several weeks.The first thing you have to do is get the attention of member of Congress. He or she is eager to direct spending toward the home district. The easiest way to get their attention, as we said in an earlier story is to give them a campaign contribution. Everyone is quick to note that these are not bribes, but legislators nearly always know where their campaign funds come from. The $1,000 contribution will get the door open.

But to partake of government largesse, you have to kick the door down. To do this, you probably will have to hire a lobbyist to make your case for you.

I asked Ronald Utt, an economist for the Heritage Foundation, how I, a freelance writer and editor, could get an earmark:

“First you put together a proposal. You tell your congressman, ‘The best kept secret in the country is my ability to do this. If I could get $25,000, I could do this great study and the earth would move.’ If they remain unconvinced, you could hire a lobbyist.”

Now $25,000 seems like a lot to me, but as Utt points out, I’d probably have to ask for a lot more than that. There was one fairly modest earmark to a private company in Colorado in the 2005 list issued by the federal Office of Management and Budget, $35,000 to a company called incentaHealth in Denver. Another smallish one was for $250,000 to CH2M Hill, a construction and engineering firm. The largest were for $18.9 million in two earmarks to Lockheed Martin. But the rest were in the $1 million to $5 million range.

Most of these individual, private company earmarks were for defense contracts. Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for Rep. Mark Udall (D.-Colo.), says:

“There is defense earmarking that goes on. There is a whole set of criteria that have to be met for each area. If you don’t apply, you don’t get them”

Most of the congressional staff people I talked to seemed to be pretty amused at the idea of someone like me getting an earmark. But one of the major questions you ask yourself as you research earmarks is: Why does company A get one, but not company B? Pacheco says:

“There is a certain amount of dollars that the appropriations committee sets aside for earmarks. They are going to spent. If you don’t get them for Colorado, they will go to some other state or district.

“If you don’t apply, you don’t get them. It’s a pot of dollars that’s already earmarked. If you want a share of that, you have to apply for it.”

If you’re serious about getting an earmark, though, you’d better hire a lobbyist. Thirteen of the 19 companies that got earmarks spent a total of $47.7 million in lobbying expenditures in the two year period prior to the 2005 earmarks. This total is considerably misleading, however, because $46.6 million was spent by the four multinationals on the list, and it includes funds they expended on all national lobbying activities, not just on trying to get a Colorado-based earmark.

Nonetheless it is interesting to note, for instance, that the two Colorado earmarks that Lockheed Martin got in fiscal year 2005, totaling $18.9 million were more than the company’s entire national lobbying expenditures of $16.7 million over the two-year period. Lockheed got a total of $1.1 billion in defense contracts in Colorado alone. Nationally, Lockheed got $26.8 billion in federal defense contracts, so their lobbying dollars were no doubt efficiently spent.

Anyway, if you look only at the smaller companies that got earmarked funds in 2005, nearly all of them hired lobbyists in the two-year period leading up to the 2005 budget passage. Those 15 local companies spent about $1.1 million on lobbying activities, receiving in return $29.4 million in earmarked federal funds. A pretty good return on investment.

This doesn’t include, of course, the companies who tried and failed to get earmarks. But no one seems to have any data on how many companies apply for them. No one knows how many of those there are.

Adam Hughes, the director of federal federal fiscal policy for the watchdog group OMB Watch, says, “Sometimes, if you know the congressman, you can get the earmark. It could just be that you have the right sort of access to decisionmakers to get your funding approved.”

Only about two percent of the discretionary federal budget is distributed via earmarking. Earmarks, like much else in Congress, gravitate toward seniority and power. Long-time West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd is known as the king of the pork barrel.

So this probably explains why I won’t be getting an earmark this time around. “They go to the ones who are powerful,” Hughes said. “You can probably make a good guess based on where they are in the pecking order, how many earmarks they are likely to get.”