Washington – Despite tight budgets, gridlock in Washington and the end of earmarks for local projects, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, other Connecticut municipalities and the state continue to hire Washington lobbyists to represent their interests.
“The reason they hire lobbyists is the same reason everybody else does,” said Sunlight Foundation Senior Fellow Bill Allison. “Washington is a very complicated place.”
The Congressional gridlock and end of earmarks — federal funding for local projects put forward by members of Congress — may have prompted the nation’s companies, government entities and non-profits to reduce their overall representation in Washington, some evidence suggests. The Center for Responsive Politics says the number of registered lobbyists in Washington declined from 13,742 in 2008 to 11,509 in 2014.
But, according to the government’s lobbying disclosure forms, some Connecticut cities and towns, as well as state and local agencies, continue to hire Washington representatives.
Allison said its difficult for a local official to navigate the bureaucracy needed to apply for a federal grant or to obtain access to key people in a federal agency. It is often helpful to have another liaison who can work with local members of Congress on an issue.
“They hire lobbyists who have worked in Washington, on Capitol Hill or somewhere else, and have a particular set of knowledge they can trade on,” Allison said. “Sometimes it’s the local taxpayer who is footing the bill.”
Some, including the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, have criticized local officials for using taxpayer money to lobby Washington, saying the public already pays their members of Congress to look out for their interests. But the perceived benefits seem to outweigh the criticisms.
For intance, Hartford pays Washington lobbyist Virginia Mayer about $6,500 a month. She was hired shortly after Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra assumed office in 2010.
Besides working with Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, to win approval for the Coltsville National Historical Park, Mayer also lobbied the Department of Homeland Security for disaster relief funds the city has been struggling to get since the massive snow storm in October of 2011.
Additionally, Mayer said she does much more, identifying resources and grants that could benefit the city, and linking the mayor to other like-minded mayors across the nation on common interests. Those include parks, and, in the post-Ferguson, Mo., world, community policing, she said.
Mayer said she also was hired to stay on top of federal issues that could affect the city. Right now immigration is a big concern, she said.
“What I do for the mayor is be an extension of the mayor’s office in D.C.,” Mayer said.
Mayer also said she’s compiling a report on the city’s federal priorities “so the city can say to the [Connecticut congressional] delegation ‘Here’s what you can do for us.’”
The Malloy administration has hired a lobbying firm, which counts Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and prominent GOP strategist from Minnesota, as a senior partner. He has been helping lobby Congress and the Navy on “funding for production of submarines and infrastructure.”
The firm Weber works for, called Mercury, is paid $80,000 a year and works mainly for the Connecticut Office of Military Affairs.
“I find them to be very nonpartisan,” said Office of Military Affairs Executive Director Robert Ross.
He said Connecticut first hired a Washington lobbying firm in 2005, under then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, when a round of base closings threatened to shutter the New London Naval Submarine Base. Rell continued to retain the firm, which changed its name to Clark & Weinstock and hired Weber. Then the firm became Mercury, with Weber as a main lobbyist.
Ross said he considers Mercury “not as a lobbyist, but as a strategic consultant.”
Malloy in 2011 appointed Dan DeSimone as the state’s full-time representative in Washington to look after the state’s interests. DeSimone is Malloy’s eyes and ears in Washington and keeps him apprised of what’s happening on Capitol Hill. The biggest difference between him and a K Street lobbyist, he says, is that he’s a state employee. “The governor is my boss and my only client.”
DeSimone’s priorities this year, which are the governor’s priorities, include transportation (Congress may take up a new highway bill this year) and finding money for Malloy’s proposed criminal justice reforms. DeSimone also said the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ new Indian recognition regulations, which are expected to be finalized any day now, are also at the top of the agenda.
Many states have representatives in Washington like DeSimone, and also hire lobbyists.
“There are hardly any entities with a greater interest in how the federal government is slicing up the pie than states,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
New Haven has hired two lobbying firms to look out for its interests in Washington. The city spent about $120,000 last year to hire Williams & Jensen, which bills itself as “Washington’s lobbying powerhouse,” and Tremont Public Advisors to lobby on transportation and economic development issues.
“The city hires lobbyists in Washington to keep city department heads cognizant of what’s going on in Washington,” said New Haven city spokesman Laurence Grotheer.
He also said the lobbyists help the city apply for grants and lobby the Federal Aviation Administration on issues related to Tweed New Haven Airport.
There are registered Washington lobbyists for Bridgeport, Middletown, Stratford and Stamford, too, although in most cases they did little or no work last year, other than helping in some grant applications.
The Southington Water Department has also hired a Washington lobbying firm to “obtain funding for water infrastructure improvements.”
Before the earmark ban, imposed in 2010, local governments competed with each other for a lawmaker’s allotment of special projects.
“In the post-earmarks era, we have to work more holistically on grants and other things that can be helpful,” said Hartford’s lobbyist Mayer.
Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker agreed that lobbyists are still important.
“Every state has a multitude of interest groups clamoring for the attention of members of the congressional delegation,” he said. “It can’t be assumed that the member or senator has that particular interest on his or her radar screen. Having someone in Washington who will advocate for you and you only may be an expense worth incurring.”