President Bush, whose stated opposition to Congressional earmarks for academic research and other pet projects has grown throughout his presidency, used his final State of the Union address Monday night to take his strongest rhetorical stance yet.
But by postponing any proposed crackdown on the directed grants -- derogatorily known as "pork barrel spending" -- until the coming budget year, the president virtually ensured that his actions would have little if any practical effect, to the satisfaction of some college officials and the disappointment of critics of the practice.
Higher education leaders have long had a love-hate relationship with earmarks. On the one hand, they’re regularly derided by critics as fostering the waste of tax dollars and encouraging a sometimes secretive circumvention of peer review in ways that do not necessarily produce the best science. But the fact remains that colleges and the research initiatives they house have been among the key recipients of the dollars, which some argue level the research playing field for less-prestigious institutions. Public university presidents regularly pass through Washington to lobby their members of Congress for the grants; on Monday alone, two who met with Inside Higher Ed's editors boasted that that was a primary reason for their visits to town.
Although many members of Congress defend the grants as a way for them to reward constituents who do good work but are disadvantaged for a variety of reasons in traditional competitions for funds, the grants have come under increasing scrutiny from budget hawks and "good government" types who see the earmarks as wasteful. Congress has made several changes in law and policy aimed at improving disclosure of the grants, with the goal of embarrassing lawmakers into providing fewer of them. But that strategy appears to have failed miserably so far; in its 2008 spending bills, Congress funded 11,000 noncompetitive projects worth $14 billion -- half the amount delivered in 2007, but about 1,000 more grants than awarded that year.
Earmarks -- "special interest projects that are often snuck in at the last minute, without discussion or debate" -- undermine "[t]he people's trust in their government," Bush said in his speech Monday night. "Last year, I asked you to voluntarily cut the number and cost of earmarks in half. I also asked you to stop slipping earmarks into committee reports that never even come to a vote. Unfortunately, neither goal was met.
"So this time, if you send me an appropriations bill that does not cut the number and cost of earmarks in half, I will send it back to you with my veto. And tomorrow, I will issue an Executive Order that directs federal agencies to ignore any future earmark that is not voted on by the Congress. If these items are truly worth funding, the Congress should debate them in the open and hold a public vote."
The executive order would direct agency officials, going forward, to ignore earmarks that are contained not in the appropriations bills that Congress passes but in the reports that accompany the legislation, which lawmakers do not vote on and can be drafted behind closed doors by staff members. In a White House briefing in advance of the Bush speech, Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president, said that the president had considered making the policies effective immediately, covering the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed late last year. But "the President thought at the end of the day that because he did not signal to Congress that he would veto the bill" if it contained earmarks, "he felt like, and people made the point that, well, that's not fair, that would be blindsiding us; you didn't make that explicitly clear that you would veto legislation."
By making the veto threat and the executive order prospective rather than retrospective, Bush quite possibly ensured that those actions will have little effect. "Politically, it's meaningful, because he can go out saying he was fiscally responsible," said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "But by making it just for 2009, this is meaningless, because Congress, forewarned, could do whatever it wants to get around [the executive order].... If you were really serious about ending earmarks, then it is a missed opportunity. He could have cut them out now instead of prospectively."
Critics of the practice of earmarking said they were disappointed by the president's action. Citizens Against Government Waste, which publishes an annual "pig book" documenting the extent of earmarked spending, noted that "the executive order could easily be skirted by appropriators during the next budget cycle, who can simply insert a line to give the earmarks contained in the accompanying reports the force of law but which still puts them off limits to budget cutters who would attempt to strip them from the bills during the floor debate."
The order could also be "repealed by the next president of the United States," the group said, since most of the leading presidential candidates -- excluding Sen. John McCain, a noted opponent of earmarking -- have eagerly participated in the process of sending directed grants to their constituents.
The Association of American Universities, which represents many of the nation's leading research institutions, has had an increasingly ambivalent view of earmarks, as some of its members institutions have, like their less-well-funded public and private university peers, begun accepting the grants.
But in a statement last night, Robert M. Berdahl, the association's president, said reducing earmarks was wise at a time when federal agencies are having increasing difficulty finding the funds to support the most promising research. "While AAU respects the authority of Congress ... we applaud steps that have the effect of reducing academic earmarking that diverts funding from peer-reviewed research," Berdahl said. "While there is a long way to go, Congress took steps in the right direction last year, and now the President proposes to go even further. To the extent that these actions free up needed resources for peer-reviewed science, we applaud them."
Issues important to higher education earned little attention elsewhere in the Bush speech. The president put in another plug for full funding of the American Competitiveness Initiative, an effort to ramp up spending on the physical sciences that Congress approved last year but fell far short of paying for in its 2008 appropriations bills.
"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow," Bush said. "Last year, the Congress passed legislation supporting the American Competitiveness Initiative, but never followed through with the funding. This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge. So I ask the Congress to double Federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on earth."
The president also offered a tease for college officials who might have been listening with one ear to the State of the Union address, when he uttered the phrase "Pell Grants." But the president did not use his last State of the Union speech to call for another large increase in the college grants for low-income students, which some higher education officials have hoped might be forthcoming. Instead, he suggested attaching the Pell Grant name to a new voucher program "to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools."