With gridlock in D.C., some question worth of lobbyists

Washington — For years, the University of Hartford employed a Washington lobbyist to help the school tap federal funds, including $2 million to help build a new performing arts center.

“For every dollar we spent (on lobbying), we got about $8 back,” said John Carson, vice president of university relations.

But the university ended its relationship with its longtime Washington representative in 2012, after Republicans took back the House in 2010 and Congress banned earmarks, or the money lawmakers had once sought for special projects.

The end of earmarks helped accelerate a trend toward a decrease in the total number of registered lobbyist in Washington. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending on lobbying and the number of active lobbyists has declined over the past few years.

While dozens of businesses, colleges and nonprofit organizations in Connecticut continue to pay millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington — General Electric and United Technologies head the list in terms of money spent –- many entities like the University of Hartford have shed their representatives in the nation’s capital.

Carson said the university in recent years has received $3.3 million in federal funds for a new road on its West Hartford campus and $2 million in Defense Department money for its engineering school, besides the $2 million in Department of Housing and Urban Development money the school used to help build the Handel Performing Arts Center.

The university paid the Palmetto Group about $100,000 a year to help get that money, before the contract with the lobbying firm was terminated in July 2012, lobbying disclosure forms show.

“We had a very successful run with our lobbyist,” Carson said. “But with the end of earmarks, it does not make sense to continue to use the money for those initiatives.”

Likewise, the University of Bridgeport ended its relationship with Panuzio & Giordano, a Hartford-based firm that has registered as a federal lobbyist, in 2012.

Mary-Jane Foster, vice president of government relations, said “a confluence of events” led to that decision.

One was the economic downturn, another was the end of earmarks.

“Rather than lobby for earmarks, we look for grants and work with our congressperson,” Foster said.

The school’s representative in Congress, Rep. Jim Himes, has “very skilled grants persons” on his staff, which “circumvents the need for a lobbyist,” Foster said.

Madison-based Vista Vocational & Life Skills Center, a nonprofit agency that teaches adults with neurological disabilities, hired Washington lobbyist Russell Reid to help seek out federal funding.

But, like the University of Bridgeport, Vista decided it could lobby for itself and save money, said Executive Director Helen Bosch.

“Basically, we wanted to have access to our (congressional) delegation,” Bosch said. “We wanted to make sure Connecticut and individuals with disabilities were represented in Washington. But we realized we already had a great relationship with our delegation.”

Yale and UConn

Yale University and the University of Connecticut have developed sophisticated in-house lobbying departments.

The University of Connecticut spends $240,000 to $280,000 a year on in-house lobbying efforts and paid $110,000 in fees to the Washington firm Van Scoyoc Associates in the first three quarters of this year, lobbying disclosure reports show.

Yale has no outside lobbyist, instead spending $510,000 on its in-house lobbying department during the first three quarters of 2013.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Connecticut State College and University System has ended its relationship with a Washington lobbyist, as has Middlebury-based TIMEX and Hartford-based Travelers Insurance, which had hired Ogilvy Government Relations to lobby on the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and a new flood insurance bill, among other things.

In a March report, the Center for Responsive Politics said a number of factors may be responsible for the slowdown in Washington’s lobbying industry, including the lackluster economy and a gridlocked Congress.

The center determined that the cost of Washington lobbying reached a peak of $14.8 billion in 2007, then began to diminish to that it was about $12.4 billion last year.

But Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, said that sometime numbers are misleading.

She said a lot of people are skirting lobbying disclosure regulations and failing to register as federal lobbyists, even as they are engaging in lobbying work.

“There’s a lot more influence peddlers out there than are on the record,” she said.

Bryner mentioned, as an example, the case of former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat who once served as the Senate’s majority leader. Daschle is now a senior policy advisor in DLA Piper’s government affairs practice, but he has not registered as a lobbyist.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-spending group, said the President Obama vow to bar lobbyists from employment in his administration may have helped curb the number of registered lobbyists.

“They don’t want to ruin their chances for a job in the administration,” Ellis said.

But he said the end of earmarks also fed a downward trend.

“Certainly at the height of the go-go era for earmarks, it seemed that anyone could put up a shingle and get hired as a lobbyist,” he said. “But if you are not going to get earmarks any more, why would you hire someone?’”

Congress hasn’t approved all 13 appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government in years, preferring instead to vote for “continuing resolutions” that extend funding of the federal government at current levels, year after year. That has dried up opportunities for lobbyists.

And there are no opportunities because so few bill are passing Congress, said a registered federal lobbyist who, like some others contacted for this story, preferred to speak on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his relationship with clients.

But 2014 may change the fortunes of Washington representatives.

The budget agreement Congress approved earlier this month requires a new ramp-up of the appropriations process. And the specter of tax reform will loom large next year, likely resulting in a sharp increase in spending on lobbying by businesses and nonprofits trying to protect their interests.

“Hope springs eternal,” the lobbyist said.

The recent downturn in the industry did not turn off some prospective lobbyists, however.

Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has registered as a lobbyist, after recently helping the law firm that employs him, Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman, open a Washington lobbying office. He signed on to represent a Libyan businessman, even though the former senator — who left office in January — cannot personally lobby members of Congress until 2015. Before his retirement, Lieberman said several times he had no plans to become a lobbyist.

 

 

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