- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It’s the most populous state in the union, with an economy larger than most countries and a former governor who is the former “Terminator.” But when times are tough, California turns to the big guns, the mercenaries who give voice to the voiceless: Washington lobbyists.

The California state Assembly, which hired a K Street lobbying firm last month for $180,000 a year to represent its interests amid the deficit reduction process, is the largest in a slew of government entities frightened that budget cuts at the federal level could increase costs for localities.

The states, counties and cities are using their own taxpayer funds to lobby the federal government not to take away their funds and to fend off mandates that could allow federal legislators to look like they’re streamlining government while actually shifting the burden, intentionally or not.

More lobbying contracts dealing with municipal issues have been initiated in the past two months than in the previous six months combined; the millions of dollars civil servants have spent on K Street lobbyists this year rank the sector above airlines, banks and the health care lobby, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The advent of the 2009 stimulus set off a frenzy of lobbying by governments, which spent $84 million trying to influence Congress that year. That figure has climbed steadily from $27 million a decade prior.

Len Simon, a former U.S. Conference of Mayors staffer who now heads a private consultancy representing individual municipalities, said the early days of the stimulus were the busiest in his decades-long career.

Then concern about equitable distribution of that money led to a ban of what had long been localities’ most direct lines to the seat of power when it came to specific needs: earmarks. Now lower levels of government have retooled their lobbying focus and are hiring anew to protect their interests in the face of federal cutbacks.

“When it becomes tighter, there’s going to be more effort to get whatever crumbs are left,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks.

The lower governments are worried that competing pressures on federal lawmakers to act decisively to address urgent issues such as unemployment yet also slash the federal deficit will wind up doing both by pushing costs down the chain.

Unfunded mandates that dictate the creation of services without fully funding them have been an “inexorable march forward under both parties,” Mr. Simon said. With needs of residents rising and available federal funds shrinking, states need fewer limits on how they can spend existing funds for programs such as Medicare, he said.

The irony that Washington lawmakers’ newfound desire to curb deficit spending, bringing it in line with the vast majority of states, which have long been required to balance their budgets, could wind up breaking the states is not lost on advocates.

“State governments are a little different than the federal government in that they actually have to balance their budgets. So the ever-changing amount that the feds provide really makes things difficult,” said Jeff Hurley, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Shadow delegations are sometimes made up of former elected representatives. The Rust Belt city of Buffalo, N.Y., last month hired Tom Reynolds, a Republican who represented the city in the House and sat on the Appropriations Committee until he retired in 2008.

“This is in some ways the frustrating thing. When you have the mayor of the town calling its representative in Congress and saying we have a need and both get paid because that’s their job, that should be enough to get the wheels to turn. But apparently that’s not enough, so everyone needs a lobbyist,” said Bill Allison, an analyst on government influence at the Sunlight Foundation.

In the Washington region, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the cities of Rockville and Laurel — two of the few with municipal governments in Maryland and Virginia — have lobbied this year.

Ears to the ground

The recent history of earmarking process, which peaked at about 1 percent of the federal budget, is riddled with instances of the well-connected bringing disproportionate amounts of money home for pet projects, some of which were unnecessary.

Yet its elimination took with it one of the few ways a large, distant national government could be responsive to individual locales’ needs.

“Members thought the crunch point between making a decision about a local issue and getting it done was the bureaucrat,” Mr. Simon said.

Now small-town governments such as Dearborn County, Ind., which hired a lobbyist last month, are finding themselves in a position ordinarily associated with those with an image problem and money to burn, like oil companies.

They join a growing cohort of public bodies that, as if disillusioned or frustrated with official channels, have taken to tactics that seem to speak to distance and disconnect.

Indeed, the pioneers of privatized intragovernment interaction, and those still most dependent on it, are the redheaded stepchildren of the republic, the U.S. territories. Puerto Rico, which lacks a voting representation in Congress, has spent up to $5 million annually on a handful of K Street lobbying firms.

Next on the list of top spenders on Washington lobbyists in the first half of this year are budget-strapped California’s Orange and Los Angeles counties, at about half a million dollars each, and Chicago.

The Virgin Islands, with an area about twice the size of the District of Columbia, immediately follows on the list of more than 1,000 state and local governments.

“The lobbyists and I sit down and put our heads together and figure out what are you going to do and what am I going to do?” said Donna Christensen, the Virgin Islands’ delegate in the House. In many cases, lobbyists may have closer relationships with lawmakers on key committees than even a region’s congressional representative, she said.

The federal government forbids lower levels of government from using money received directly from the federal Treasury to lobby it for more, but does not otherwise restrict it. Congress was concerned enough about the growing phenomenon, however, that as part of a 2007 ethics reform package it required lobbyists to clearly disclose whether their client is a taxpayer-funded entity. Years later, nearly half of local governments’ lobbying disclosures regularly fail to do so, The Washington Times found.

When Mr. Simon gives miniature civics lessons to foreign delegations, localities’ unofficial and uneven representation is regarded with bafflement.

“You’d start explaining that cities come to Washington to advocate for their own best interests, and they’d look at each other and then look at you as if to say, ‘What are you, crazy?’ ” he said. “But we’re America and we have this unusual sort of wide-open, anyone-can-play system.”