in Houston, Texas

City of Houston shopping for federal lobbyist, looks to trim overall lobbying costs

Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010, 08:00AM CST
By Steve Miller
capitol

Help wanted: City of 2 million-plus seeks go-getter who can glide through the halls of Congress, knows the issues and players and -- this is important -- who can bring home our money.

The city of Houston is looking for an advocate in the Beltway, and officials hope to save taxpayers a few bucks in the process by eliminating a longtime firm working exclusively for the airport.

The new lobbying contractor for federal issues, including aviation, could edge out ZuckertScoutt & Rasenberger, which has been paid $1.3 million over the last decade to work on behalf of the Houston Airport System. Zuckert's earnings represent 32 percent of the $4 million the city has paid to lobbyists to D.C. since 2000, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

"It’s the hope of both Mayor (Annise) Parker and myself that we can combine the contracts into one and recognize some cost savings,” said Darrin Hall, head of intergovernmental affairs for the city.
 
Lobbying powerhouse Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld handles other city business, from bills dealing with freight rail costs to opposing legislation that would allow online travel companies to withhold taxes on hotels from cities.
 
Greater efficiency might mean less time for ceremony -- Zuckert lobbyist Rachel Trinder reported working last year on "resolutions commending the 40th anniversary of IAH airport in Houston," introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, though her primary focus was to bring home funds from the Federal Aviation Administration.
 
Trinder declined to comment on her work or whether her firm would try to regain the contract.

But why do local governments need million-dollar lobbyists to work on the same issues carried by a region's Congressional delegation? This has been a point of criticism for years.

“I have always opposed using tax dollars to hire lobbyists," U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said via e-mail. "Mayor Parker has shown a willingness to take on tough issues and cut spending wherever possible. I hope she continues on that path with regards to this decision.” 

 

As cities, counties and school districts cut jobs and ask residents to pony up for new taxes, such criticism gets more pointed.

 
“The mayor should be the best lobbyist a city has,” said Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a D.C.-based outfit that advocates for responsible public spending. “And these U.S. lawmakers, part of their job is to deal with federal legislation, the same thing these lobbyists are being paid millions to do.”
 
Mayors, county judges, board members and other elected officials should be complementing a region’s federal elected presence, Ellis said.
 
Others contend that mindset ignores the nitty-gritty of the political process.
 
"The unfortunate part of politics is that we need the same stroke that corporate interests have," said Cathy Sisk, director of Harris County's Office of Legislative Relations, which handles the county's $216,000 federal lobbying budget. "It gives the taxpayer the same influence as the people who make huge campaign contributions."
 
The downside to letting the U.S. reps handle the lobbying role is that they end up agitating for bucks just for their districts, even if needs are greater elsewhere, said Peter Sepp, executive vice-president of the National Taxpayers Union.
 
“At the same time, there is an argument that this kind of thing, earmarking, is accelerated by lobbyists,” said Sepp, whose Virginia-based group advocates for smaller government.
 
The current arrangement of taxpayer-funded lobbyists often results in a circular money grab. Harris County, for example, lobbies for money in competition with other regions of Texas. Earlier this year, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Act became a money grab for congressional districts all over the U.S. Harris County paid its longtime lobbyist Jack Peterson $40,000 in part to advocate for earmarks from the bill.
 
 
The city of Houston has received no proposals for its lobbying contract, which runs two years with a third-year option, Hall said. The deadline is Nov. 1 for the contract beginning in March.
 
Hall said he expects proposals from the firm Patton Boggs, which was the city's primary lobbyist before Akin got the job in 2005.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of the Capitol by flickr user wallyg, used via a Creative Commons license.

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