- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Catfish farmers are begging for $50 million to prop up their industry.

Furniture and rug retailers covet $500 to $1,000 tax breaks for consumers who buy their wares.

The lobbying frenzy for a piece of Barack Obama’s more than $800 billion economic stimulus package is in full swing, and the competition is stiff for the unprecedented amount of money that’s on the table.

The final package, which is slated for passage next month, will be nearly as large as all of the appropriation bills that annually fund the entire federal government.

“With the size of this package, everyone in Washington is trying to get something in it,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

“It’s pretty much a free for all,” agreed Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, a leading opponent of pork-barrel spending.

The $825 billion plan unveiled by House Democrats last week doles out cash on items ranging from $400 million for new computers at the Social Security Administration to $1 billion for child-support enforcement.

The bartering for cash windfalls and tax breaks will mount as the House committees put finishing touches on the bill and the Senate writes its own version, expected out this week.

Like the House offering, the Senate version is expected to spend heavily on road and bridge construction projects and include large tax cuts. Money also would be handed out for Medicaid, unemployment benefits and food stamps.

Within these broad spending categories, lobbyists are determined to carve out a piece for their clients, from governors and mayors to the biotechnology industry, who see it as a lifeline or, at the very least, a chance to get ahead.

Lobbyists for Catfish Farmers of America are on Capitol Hill trying to pry the money out of the stimulus for a feed assistance program they say is vital for fish farmers struggling with skyrocketing feed prices and competition from cheap imports.

The farmers didn’t get the money out of the House proposal, but they are not giving up.

“There’s a lot of jobs at risk,” said Marty Fuller, a catfish-industry lobbyist. “We are continuing to push and hope we can get something in the Senate version.”

The industry says its more than 18,000 jobs are particularly vital because the country’s 130,000 acres of catfish farms are located primarily in the economically downtrodden states of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Portland Cement Association, the largest trade group for cement makers in the United States and Canada, is lobbying for infrastructure projects likely to use its product.

“It’s absolutely critical,” said the association’s chief economist, Ed Sullivan, stressing the boon for jobs from building bridges, roads and schools.

The Association of American Universities makes a similar pitch for spending more on student tuition aid and about $3 billion in added research funding.

“As large employers and as primary drivers of our innovation economy, research universities … play a vital role in producing the intellectual talent, scientific advances and innovative ideas that are necessary for restoring economic growth, creating new jobs and ensuring national security,” AAU President Robert M. Berdahl said in a letter last month to Mr. Obama.

The House plan included more than $16 billion in tuition aid and $10 billion for scientific research.

Then there is the U.S. Travel Association, which represents hotel, resort and theme-park operators. It wants the stimulus to create a government office for overseas promotion of tourism in the United States, a plan the association has pushed for years.

It is a long shot, but it’s trying.

Mr. Obama said the bill will not contain earmarks - items lawmakers slip into bills for spending programs in their home districts or states. Yet Mr. Schatz said lawmakers and lobbyists still can find creative ways to steer taxpayer dollars to pet projects.

“If the president-elect is accurate in saying there are no earmarks, we would be pleased but surprised,” Mr. Schatz said.

Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, which is playing a leading role in drafting the bill, said Monday he is fighting to keep lobbyists’ hands off taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t think they are going to get it,” the Montana Democrat said. “So far, it’s really been focused on short-term jobs and growth.”

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