This little piggy went to the University of California, this little piggy went to the University of Nevada ...
After years of increase, Congressional "pork-barrel spending" declined by more than half this year, from $29 billion reported in 2006 to $13.2 billion this year, according to a new report  released by the Citizens Against Government Waste .
The watchdog group attributed the decrease largely to the fact that Congress approved only 2 of 11 appropriations bills before it this fall. When the new Democratic Congress then decided in December  to largely extend 2006 spending levels for all other agencies through 2007 with the approval of a rare continuing joint resolution -- complete with an almost complete moratorium on earmarks -- more than $12 billion that would have funded about 7,000 more earmarks went unspent (on porky purposes, that is).
So said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which on Wednesday continued its annual ritual of releasing its Pig Book tracking Congressional earmarks -- funds that a member of Congress directs to recipients (including colleges) absent the approval of a peer-review process that federal agencies rely upon to dole out most research funds.
“The Congressional Pig Book this year is the smallest it’s been since 1999,” said Schatz. “It was a nice Christmas present for the taxpayers.”
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 proper processes that does 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. So when Congress approved its virtually earmark-free joint resolution, colleges braced for the financial fallout: One observer predicted that research institutions alone would forgo $1 billion to $1.5 billion in funds in 2007 .
But, the loss of funds might be short-lived. To the chagrin of government watchdogs and surely the elation of some scientists, Schatz characterized the slim size of this year’s Pig Book as something of a fluke, “a matter of circumstance, not of will.”
Though reforms are in place to increase the transparency of the earmarking process, “there’s no permanent fix” -- and nothing to suggest that lesser earmark spending this year necessarily suggests a reversal of what has otherwise been an upward trend. In fact, Schatz said, lobbyists for public universities may have actually gained an advantage in access to their lawmakers in last year’s ethics package, as he said a loophole in the law exempts them from restrictions that private entities now face when it comes to making gifts to members of Congress.
“Whatever higher ed has been able to obtain in the past, they’ll probably get even more in the future in part because they’ll have a different level of access to members of Congress,” Schatz said.
The following university projects represent just a few of the 2,658 initiatives that raked in the government-issued bacon this year, according to The 2007 Congressional Pig Book:
- $11.5 million will fund the development of a large aperture telescope at the University of Hawaii , with the aim of preventing space objects from colliding with earth.
- $1.3 million will fund the study of structural reliability of smart munitions and lightweight structures at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
- $5.5 million will go to the University of California at San Francisco’s Ernest Gallo Clinic & Research Center , devoted to the study of basic neuroscience and the effects of alcohol and drug abuse on the brain.
- $3.335 million will fund a variety of projects at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which has received more than $70 million in Congressional appropriations since 2001.
- $12 million will be distributed to an assortment of yet-unknown universities to train rural emergency responder teams.