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Higher Ed Dips Into the Pork Barrel Again

April 3, 2008

The verdict on Congressional spending on "earmarks" this year: It's up from last year, down from 2006 and easier to track thanks to new disclosure requirements. For recipients of the lawmaker-directed spending measures in higher education, that means a continued flow of research and teaching dollars but at the expense of peer review and competitive grants.

On Wednesday, the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste released its annual Pig Book summary of the pet projects of members of Congress, which it derides as "pork-barrel spending." The report uncovered 11,610 individual earmarks for the 2008 fiscal year -- the second largest number it has recorded -- for a total of $17.2 billion. That's a significant increase over last year, when most appropriations bills were subject to a moratorium on earmarks. (Another one-year moratorium that would have applied in the 2009 fiscal year failed last month in the Senate.) In fiscal year 2007, the report found 2,658 projects totaling some $13.2 billion in spending -- less than half the $29 billion directed to pet projects in 2006.

This time around, earmarks were subjected to increased scrutiny resulting from new disclosure measures Congress passed last year. For the first time, 11,146 of the projects have the names of their sponsors attached, but even so, exposure to sunlight hasn't stopped lawmakers from steering projects into their home states and districts.

“When Congress adopted earmark reforms last year, there was hope that the number and cost of earmarks would be cut in half," said Thomas A. Schatz, CAGW's president. "By any measure, that has not occurred.”

The defense appropriations bill, which typically contains the lion's share of earmarks directed to colleges and universities, saw a 32-percent reduction of that spending to $7.3 billion from $10.8 billion in fiscal year 2007, when the bill was not subject to the moratorium. While most of the bills saw such declines, a notable exception was the appropriations bill for energy and water, whose earmark totals more than doubled to $3.8 billion from $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2006.

Many earmarked educational dollars also originate in the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. According to the report, the number of projects in the bill shot up from 51 in fiscal year 2006 to 2,244 this fiscal year (excluding the moratorium year of 2007), but the total cost decreased to $1 billion from $1.8 billion.

The senator who brought home the most spending in 2008 was Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Among the $42.7 million in earmarks he embedded in the Labor/HHS bill are $4.9 million for "Phase II" of the University of Mississippi's National Center for Natural Products Research (housed in the Thad Cochran Research Center), which studies organisms for possible pharmaceutical applications; and $195,000 for Tougaloo College's study-abroad program.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), another big spender fingered by the watchdog group, sent almost $1 million to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for berry research, and $818,232 for research into alternative products for the salmon industry.

Leaders in higher education are often conflicted about the benefits of earmarks. They acknowledge their corrosive influence on standards of review and competitive granting procedures but are often reluctant to stop pursuing them for fear of budget shortfalls. This year especially, when President Bush threatened to veto spending bills that significantly overshot his targets, the federal budget process was essentially a zero-sum game in which funds directed through earmarks had to be routed away from priorities already approved through the legislative appropriations process.

So, in a very real sense, the earmarks supporting research or educational purposes in academe had to be "offset by reductions somewhere else" -- such as the research and development budget itself, said Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This fiscal year, earmarks made up almost $4.5 billion in research and development spending (half or less of which ends up at research universities), or 3.1 percent of the overall R&D budget, according to an AAAS analysis.

It may be too early to predict whether the pattern will continue next year, but chances are that universities are already preparing for another round of lobbying in Washington. President Bush signed an executive order earlier this year that would make it more difficult to pass earmarks in fiscal year 2009, but many predicted that it would serve mainly as advance notice for lawmakers with an eye on funneling more federal dollars to their home states.

Since "the big decisions on how much to spend on appropriations have not been made yet, it’s too soon to tell whether it will be another zero-sum game or not, but since the earmark moratorium proposal failed we can certainly expect to see earmarks in 2009 appropriations,” Koizumi said.

 

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