Swaying the supercommittee

At 84, Barbara Talbert might seem an unlikely Washington lobbyist. But when she heard senior citizen programs could be cut to reduce federal budget deficits, she quickly got on a bus to Capitol Hill.

"As far as Social Security is concerned, some people have that as their only income," the Bowie resident said, repeating the pitch she made to staff members in nine congressional offices in a single day. "Others with health problems depend solely on Medicare."

Dozens of Maryland businesses, nonprofit groups and, in some cases, individuals are lobbying the congressional "supercommittee" charged with finding a way to trim federal budget deficits by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. All of them are working to protect their slice of the federal pie.

The breadth of the interests involved underscores just how critical the panel's decisions or lack of progress — could be for Maryland. The state's leading hospital systems and universities, veterans and retirees, federal workers and environmentalists are all working to influence the outcome of the deficit debate.

The effort on behalf of Marylanders is part of a national campaign to influence where cuts are made and which taxes, if any, are raised. More than 200 businesses and nonprofits across the country with an interest in swaying the supercommittee have spent millions of dollars lobbying since July, a review by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation shows.

For Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the effort to keep cuts from affecting federal workers has been a top priority. The group has sent letters to each member of the panel, and its lobbyists frequently meet with lawmakers and their staffs one on one.

The union represents thousands of federal employees in Maryland, including at state-based agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring and the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville. It spent $178,270 attempting to influence Congress over the past three months, according to recent disclosure reports.

Kelley is primarily concerned with a proposal that workers contribute an additional 1.2 percent of their pay to retirement plans. There are also rumblings of extending the current two-year pay freeze, she said. Either policy could have a disproportionate impact on Maryland, home to 286,810 federal workers.

"Federal employees understand the economic situation of the country, but we think that this is enough," she said of the freeze, which began this year. "We're, of course, communicating pretty much nonstop with the committee in the hopes of [an extension] not happening."

While most voters can't get an audience with committee members, their state elected leaders sometimes do. Gov. Martin O'Malley, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has met repeatedly with Democratic members of the panel to urge a "balanced approach" of spending cuts and tax increases.

In their meetings, O'Malley said, he and other Democratic governors warned the supercommittee members that the fragile economic recovery "could be totally crushed by deep, precipitous and, in our view, irresponsible cuts that some would like to see."

O'Malley said Maryland, as home to the National Security Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal agencies and their contractors, could be particularly vulnerable.

"In a realm where some would say that the only solutions to our fiscal challenges are cuts, and more cuts, and cuts on top of cuts, then those assets can be badly damaged," he said. "And with them, a lot of jobs."

The six Democrats and six Republicans on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, as the supercommittee is officially known, are under pressure to broker a deal soon. If they fail to reach an agreement by Nov. 23, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will kick in starting in 2013.

If the committee deadlocks, half of the automatic reductions would hit defense and the other half could fall on Medicare, medical research, transportation and other government services. Safety net programs for the poor, such as Medicaid, are protected. Cuts to Medicare would be capped at 2 percent.

A delegation of Maryland veterans organized by the American Legion pressed Rep. Chris Van Hollen this month to preserve defense spending, protect veterans benefits and — above all — to reach an agreement. The Montgomery County Democrat is the only member of Maryland's delegation who is serving on the supercommittee.

World War II and Korean War veteran Clarence Bacon, a former national commander of the legion, said the Marylanders delivered a simple message to Van Hollen: That further defense cuts could harm national security.

"He's one of 12 members, and it's anybody's guess what that committee is going to finally come out with," Bacon said. "We encouraged him to support our position."

Environmentalists concerned about the Chesapeake Bay are also working the committee.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is hoping to protect a specific program that helps farmers reduce fertilizer runoff into the bay. Congress created the program in 2008 and set aside $188 million in spending over five years. But many conservation initiatives, along with a slew of other agriculture issues, could come under the committee's review.

Congress is aiming to trim $23 billion from farming and food programs.

"There's a real fight going on about where those billons are going to come from," said Doug Siglin, the bay foundation's top lobbyist who has also discussed the issue with Van Hollen.

Maryland-based defense contractors have reported lobbying on the deficit issue, though the industry appears to be holding back for now — possibly to prepare for a larger fight over across-the-board cuts if they are triggered.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin reports lobbying on "matters related to budget/debt reduction." A spokesman for the company did not respond to a request for more detail.

Pessimism that the committee can find common ground, or that Congress will approve its recommendations, is running high in Washington. Democrats have long insisted that new taxes are needed to address the country's financial woes. And until recently, Republicans strenuously disagreed.

Some GOP lawmakers have now suggested they might support limited hikes, but Democrats argue those proposed revenues are not substantial enough.

The panel was created as part of the August agreement between House Republicans and President Barack Obama to raise the nation's debt ceiling. It is the latest in a series of bipartisan groups focused on deficit reduction. Ideas proposed by past panels have failed to gain much traction.

Much of the lobbying from Maryland-based organizations has focused on Van Hollen. Asked about lobbying by federal employees and defense contractors, Van Hollen said in a recent interview that he hears from the groups "from time to time."

"What I hear is that people understand that we have to tackle our deficit problem, but we should do it in a fair, predictable way that doesn't disproportionally hit any one sector," he said. "I'm sure those folks obviously worry about the impact of ... deep cuts."

Talbert, the Bowie senior, came to Washington last month as part of a lobbying campaign organized by AARP. The senior citizen group has been among the most aggressive putting pressure on Congress to exempt Medicare, Social Security and other programs from significant cuts.

The group spent $2.75 million nationally lobbying from July through September, which does not include the cost of the group's national television advertising campaign on the issue.

The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland both have much at stake in the deficit debate, too. Both are concerned about research grants, federal funding for training medical residents, and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, which affect how much doctors are paid for the care they provide.

Hopkins reported spending $90,000 in lobbying in the last quarter, while the University of Maryland spent $46,000.

"We're very concerned about those kinds of proposals," Beth Felder, director of federal affairs for Hopkins, said of potential cuts. "We're watching everything."