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The Academic Pork Barrel, 2010

April 29, 2010

The continuing debate over whether to end the practice of Congressional earmarking is anything but academic for higher education.

Colleges, universities and other academic organizations received just shy of $2 billion in grants directed to them by individual members of Congress in the 2010 fiscal year, an Inside Higher Ed analysis shows.

A review of appropriations bills, Congressionally mandated disclosure forms and lawmakers' news releases revealed grants to 875 institutions, totaling $1,982,532,150. (That total may be incomplete; while required disclosure of earmarks has been strengthened under federal law, and many lawmakers like to boast about the money they bring home to their local colleges and other constituents, it is still difficult to follow the flow of money with perfect precision.) That's roughly one-eighth of the overall amount of $16.5 billion earmarked by Congress in 2010, according to an estimate by Citizens Against Government Waste.

A database of institutions and their earmarks, which is searchable by institution and agency and sortable alphabetically or by the total amount of directed grant funds an institution received, can be found here.

As seen in the summary table below, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa led the way with $58.7 million in grants, followed by Mississippi State University, which had a total of $47.9 million in grants for it alone and another $7.2 million in earmarks shared with other institutions.

Earmarks are commonly derided as "pork barrel spending" because they are seen as attempts by legislators to keep their constituents happy (and voting for them). Many earmarks support important and valuable projects, but they are criticized because they bypass the peer review process designed to distribute federal funds to the most worthy priorities.

Among other highlights of our review of the data:

  • The leading recipients of earmarks in academe resided, not surprisingly, in states represented by some of the most powerful people in Congress. Four Mississippi institutions -- Mississippi State University (No. 2), the University of Mississippi (No. 6), the University of Southern Mississippi (No. 12), and the University of Mississippi Medical Center (No. 25) were among the top 25 recipients of academic earmarks, due in large part to the fact that Sen. Thad Cochran, the state's senior senator, is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Auburn University joined the University of Alabama among academe's top earmark beneficiaries thanks to Sen. Richard Shelby, and the University of Hawaii, West Virginia University and Marshall University scored big with the aid of their respective longtime patrons, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.).
  • The Defense Department was by far the biggest provider of direct Congressional grants, allocating about $898 million, or 45 percent, of the total earmarks to higher education. The Energy Department was next with $211 million, followed by the Departments of Agriculture ($182.5 million), Health and Human Services ($132.5 million), and Education ($128 million).
  • Community colleges received about $80 million of the roughly $2 billion in earmarks.
  • The median grant size was $500,000.

Pork Barrel Pros and Cons

The arguments for and against earmarks -- federal monies that individual members of Congress specifically direct to entities of their choosing, usually constituents from their districts or states that have lobbied for the funds -- are well-rehearsed at this point.

Opponents criticize them from a range of perspectives: Federal deficit hawks deride them as fostering the waste of tax dollars and part of an endemic lobbying culture in Washington. When it comes to earmarks for research, which is where many grants to higher education are directed, science purists see them as a sometimes secretive circumvention of the traditional peer review processes, often resulting in failure to produce the best science.

Supporters argue that the earmarks level the playing field for less-prestigious institutions that are too often shut out of the sometimes clubby executive branch grant-making processes. And while many leading research universities have long shunned them, even they have begun playing the game in recent years.

Critics of earmarking regularly try to rein in the practice, usually to little or no avail. Democratic leaders in Congress toughened rules on disclosure of earmarks, requiring lawmakers to publish lists of their requests, among other steps. While such lists are easily found on some lawmakers' websites, some members of Congress are either not publishing them or making them impossible to find, based on this reporter's searches in recent weeks.

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The last two months have seen a new round of gamesmanship on the earmarking issue in Congress. House Democrats announced last month that they would ban the awarding of directed grants to for-profit entities, saying that doing so would "ensure that earmarks go to their intended purposes and [help] prevent for-profits from masquerading as non-profits." (Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Committee, also said the panel would establish an online “one-stop” link to all House lawmakers' earmark requests.)

House Republicans followed a day later with their own announcement of a self-imposed, one-year moratorium on earmarks -- though GOP colleagues in the Senate did not appear inclined to follow suit.

Many college and university leaders stand ready to defend the public value of the earmarks they receive, which are helpful any time but particularly important as other sources of funds erode in an economic downturn like the current one.

"Federal funding has played an essential role in allowing the University of Alabama to address critically needed teaching and research facilities at a time of unprecedented enrollment growth," Joe Benson, vice president for research at Alabama, said via e-mail. "A science and engineering corridor is currently under construction that will facilitate major collaborative science and engineering research, allowing UA researchers to address major problems and drive the economic development of the state and region. In addition, federal financial assistance supports research and outreach programs ranging from an Institute for Sustainable Energy to a project aimed at preparing the workforce of the future."

The more politically savvy among them don't seem particularly fearful that the maneuvering over the practice of earmarking is likely to result in its demise anytime soon.

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, was in Inside Higher Ed's office last month after having visited with members of California's Congressional delegation to encourage them to renew some of his institutions' earmarks, which he said "have been really good for the country." Are you worried Congress might stop sending grants your way, he was asked?

"As long as elected officials can breathe," Reed said, "there will be earmarks."

Top Higher Education Recipients of Congressional Earmarks, 2010

Institution Total Earmark Amount (Unshared)
University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa $58,755,000
Mississippi State University $47,919,000
Texas A&M University $40,150,000
University of North Dakota $39,660,000
North Dakota State University $37,040,000
University of Mississippi $33,655,000
University of Hawaii $33,503,000
University of Massachusetts at Boston $33,002,000
Utah State University $27,190,000
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology $27,000,000
Louisiana State University $26,650,000
University of Southern Mississippi $22,590,000
West Virginia University $21,920,000
University of Louisville $20,150,000
University of Kentucky $19,709,000
University of Nebraska at Lincoln $18,560,000
Auburn University $18,032,000
Iowa State University $17,921,000
Missouri University of Science and Technology $17,200,000
Marshall University $16,230,000
University of Utah $16,040,000
Montana State University $15,545,000
Arkansas State University $15,400,000
Kansas State University $15,300,000
University of Mississippi Medical Center $14,000,000

Source: Inside Higher Ed reporting

 

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