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Bringing Home the Bacon

April 6, 2006

The Virginia Community College System received $2 million in federal money for its Internet portal. Four million dollars flowed to California's Loma Linda University for space radiation research, according to the “2006 Congressional Pig Book,” released Wednesday by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

The annual report documents Congressional "pet projects" that, the group argues, waste taxpayer dollars. This year’s book names 375 examples of pork, including colleges and universities that are recipients of federal funds.

Earmarking, a practice that federal lawmakers commonly use to direct funds to specific recipients, rather than allocating them through the traditional peer review process, has become a hot issue on Capitol Hill and across the country in the wake of recent influence-peddling scandals involving Duke Cunningham, the former California Congressman, and the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

According to the Citizens Against Government Waste report, while the number of earmarked projects in the 11 appropriations bills decreased by 29 percent (from 13,997 to 9,963), the amount spent increased to a record $29 billion. Tom Schatz, the group’s president, said the discrepancy is a product of a sharp decrease of earmarks in the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments -- from 9,071 last year to a mere 51 this year. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, refused to add earmarks during the appropriations process, because the available funds for the agencies were tighter than usual.

Advocates of the earmarking process within higher education have argued that earmarks are an equalizer, leveling the playing field for smaller institutions that cannot compete with the more established, wealthier institutions with entrenched research reputations and programs. Other higher education officials say that colleges are doing what any wise steward of an institution’s future would do: take advantage of available avenues to solve problems and get things done.

Among the projects listed that involved colleges and universities are:

  • $14.3 million for the University of Nevada at Las Vegas ($5 million to study the deep burn-up of nuclear fuel and other fuel cycle research, $3.4 million for the study of hydrogen fuel cell and storage, $3.4 million to research the solar-powered thermochemical production of hydrogen and $2.5 million for photonics research and the evaluation of advanced fiber optics for hybrid solar lighting).
  • $4.5 million for the Geographic Information System Center of Excellence at West Virginia University.
  • $3.5 million for Auburn University to develop high-efficiency free piston sterling converters.
  • $1 million for the University of Texas's Flywheel Bus and Truck Program.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) used Wednesday's press conference announcing the new report to continue their lobbying for earmark reform. Flanked by three pigs -- two real ones and a mascot named Porky -- the senators called for increased accountability in the appropriations process.

 “We aren’t saying all these are bad,” McCain said. “We’re saying that they have to go through the appropriate channels. There’s a competitive process [of awarding money] that’s been respected for years."

The projects highlighted in the pig book summary, totaling $3.4 billion, meet at least one of the following criteria: requested by only one chamber of Congress; not specifically authorized; not competitively awarded; not requested by President Bush; greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding; not the subject of Congressional hearings; or serves only a local or special interest.

McCain, who has led the earmark reform legislation with Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), appeared before Coburn, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal financial management, government information and international security, last month to trumpet his earmark reform legislation, called the Obligations of Funds Transparency Act of 2005.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed a lobbying bill last week that required more transparency from lobbyists regarding their connections to lawmakers, but McCain called the bill "weak" because it failed to focus on enforcement of federal ethics laws.

McCain and Coburn both said that when earmarks are added to an appropriations bill late in the process, few in Congress are able to see the provisions before voting. McCain wants to amend the process so that an earmark can be challenged without taking down the entire appropriations bill.

“We should know what the earmarks are before we vote on a bill,” Coburn said. “Congress is failing to provide appropriate oversight.”

McCain said he planned to work with a group of six or seven senators who are looking to see a change in the earmarking process. “That may provide the kind of critical mass needed to make a meaningful change,” he said.

 

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