An intense lobbying campaign defeats Sen. Danforth and buries the opposition to academic earmarks.
By Robert G. Kaiser
When the Senate voted 58-40 on June 6, 1986, to eliminate 10 earmarked appropriations for universities worth $80.6 million, "it was a total surprise," Gerald Cassidy recalled years later -- and a grave threat to his business.
Only two of the 10 were paying Cassidy clients, Arizona State University and Rochester Institute of Technology, but the threat was generic, not specific to his clients at that moment. Sen. John Danforth, prompted by his brother William Danforth, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and past chairman of the Association of American Universities (AAU), had persuaded the Senate to strip those earmarks from an appropriations bill. The Danforths were trying to stamp out the increasingly popular phenomenon of directing -- "earmarking" -- specific appropriations to named academic institutions. They were threatening Cassidy's most important business.
Cassidy and his colleagues went to battle stations. The firm's research department quickly produced a loose-leaf notebook crammed with information on the subject that was circulated to congressional offices. The material included an analysis of how federal support for science was distributed -- mostly to a few schools. In Fiscal 1985, for example, 55 percent of federal spending for research at American universities went to 20 schools, all but one (the University of Washington) located in the Northeast, upper Midwest and California.
Cassidy and his colleagues called in chits all over the Hill. "We probably met with at least two dozen senators on the issue. I would bet we met during that couple of weeks 60 or more senators and staff. . . . We reminded members what they had got from the [appropriations] committees was one of the important things [they had gotten]. We just researched a period of four or five years to show them what they had gotten through appropriations -- was that something they were interested in giving up?"
"What they had gotten" was earmarks and other forms of pork -- the bacon that many senators thought it was their job to bring home to their states.
Jonathan Orloff, a Cassidy employee who had come from the staff of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, recalled his efforts to engage Kennedy in the debate. "He had an abiding interest in helping universities," Orloff said -- including Boston's Northeastern University, which was due to receive an earmark worth $13.5 million under the bill being debated. Speaker Tip O'Neill had personally supported that earmark. Kennedy called half a dozen senators looking for votes against the Danforth amendment, Orloff remembered. The firm mobilized "our friends on the Hill who had worked with us," recalled another lobbyist then working for Cassidy.
While they lobbied senators, Cassidy and his allies also worked on the House. The Senate spending bill to which the Danforth amendment had been added on June 6 differed from a similar bill passed by the House; the two versions would have to be compromised into one bill by a conference committee. The earmarks that Danforth had targeted enjoyed powerful support from O'Neill and important members of the House Appropriations Committee who took part in the conference. Many of the Senate conferees, led by Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), were also sympathetic to earmarks and hostile to the Danforth amendment. The conference committee restored nine of the ten earmarks eliminated by the Danforth amendment, sending them back to the Senate for a second vote on June 26, 1986.
Danforth again proposed to knock out the disputed earmarks. He tried to provoke his colleagues' indignation at the spectacle of universities "transformed" by the promise of pork "into institutions that . . . pay lobbyists" to help them "get into the pork barrel."
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), one of Danforth's few supporters on the Appropriations Committee, wondered aloud why the conference committee had ignored the Senate's original vote and restored all but one of the original earmarks, benefiting seven lucky states. Why those seven? Because "they had patrons in the conference . . . who look out for them," he answered his own question. He was referring to O'Neill, Sen. Robert J. Dole, the Republican leader (the bill had two earmarks for Kansas universities), and numerous appropriators who wanted to preserve earmarking.
In the floor debate on Danforth's second attempt to kill the earmarks, Dole disclosed to his colleagues that many academics actually favored earmarking. "Just this morning," Dole said, "I received a telephone call from Dr. Jean Mayer, the president of Tufts University. He firmly believes that Congress has every right to direct where the research money that it appropriates goes . . . " Mayer, Cassidy's first earmark client, just happened to telephone the Republican leader in the Senate on the day of this critical vote.
A number of senators took their cues directly from Cassidy's briefing book. Carol Casey, then Cassidy's research director and principal author of the book, acknowledged as much in an interview: "We provided talking points to a number of people on the Hill, and some of them, as they sometimes do, followed them verbatim. That was their choice."
Danforth had won the first round on a 58-40 vote. After three weeks of intense lobbying, he lost the second round, 56-42. Seventeen senators reversed their votes, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, liberals, moderates and conservatives. Just six of the Senate Appropriations Committee's 29 members voted for Danforth's amendment. Only one senator who had opposed Danforth on June 6 supported him on June 26 -- the rest of the switches were all against him.
Probably the opponents' most telling argument was an appeal to Senatorial pride: Did members want to maintain control of federal spending in support of higher education and research, and enjoy the gratitude of those who received the money? Or would they rely on a competitive process of evaluation by experts, known as "peer review?"
Sen. Russell Long of Louisiana, a horse-trading politician of the old school, made the point with ripe sarcasm in the floor debate: "When did we agree that the peers would cut the melon or decide who gets this money? I have been around here for a while. I do not recall that I ever agreed to that . . . I would rather depend on my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee than on one of those peers."
Reading the debates today, it's clear that "peers" was, for many senators, a stand-in for "elites." The elite schools had friends, led by Danforth, a graduate of Princeton and the Yale law and divinity schools, but not as many as the earmarkers had. Even the Massachusetts senators, Kennedy (a Harvard graduate) and John F. Kerry (a Yale graduate) voted against Danforth. (Read the Congressional Record text of the debate [PDF].)
Cassidy considered the tall, elegant Missourian -- scion of the family that founded the Ralston-Purina Co. -- the ideal opponent in a dispute over earmarks for non-elite universities. "It was an argument about essentially the privileged and the blue bloods vs. the unenlightened who were trying to rise up from their current condition," he recalled. Beating Danforth pleased the lobbyist mightily.
The second Senate vote "pretty much put a cork in the issue,"
Cassidy said years later. "At times like that, this job can actually be fun."
But it wasn't all fun. The debate on the Danforth amendment brought Cassidy a kind of personal notoriety he had never previously known. It came from Danforth himself, who said during the second debate on June 25:
"Here is the state now of the relationship between our academic community and the federal government. There is a lobbyist in town named Mr. Cassidy. This Mr. Cassidy goes around to colleges and universities and says, 'Pay me $2,000 a month for a minimum of 2 years and I will help you to get government grants.' . . . It is just plain wrong for colleges to be bellying up to the trough of the federal government. If they want research grants to do research for our government, it should be on the basis of their competence and their ability, not on hiring a lobbyist and getting into the pork barrel."
Danforth had his numbers wrong. Cassidy's fees usually began at $10,000 a month, and many universities paid monthly retainers of $20,000 or more for his services. But he had the lobbyist's name right, and he'd identified the game, too. Cassidy remembers someone calling him when Danforth was on the floor making this statement -- "are you watching this?" his friend asked. He turned on C-SPAN.
Within an hour, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was on the floor defending Cassidy. "I was quite astounded sitting in my office to hear the name of an individual for whom I have a high regard who is not a member of the Senate, but an individual in the private sector. . . . I could not believe my ears to hear his name and his firm used in a rather pejorative sense. The individual referred to, Mr. Cassidy, does indeed have a firm in Washington . . . There are over 50 people employed in this firm in helping universities develop and grow. I cannot think of more laudable work to be done than in helping to build the scientific and educational base of this country."
Cassidy had been in business for nearly 11 years, and his name had rarely appeared in any newspaper. On the rare occasion that a reporter called, Cassidy usually declined to answer any questions. Mentions of his name by Danforth and Harkin on the Senate floor were unprecedented, and also unwelcome. Cassidy had decided he didn't want or need publicity. He preferred to fly under the Washington radar.
Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: An unwelcome public run-in with the chairman of Senate Appropriations Committee.
Key Related Materials
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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