Scrutiny for Colleges on Earmarks

A senator wants to know how colleges lobby for government money.
August 8, 2006

More than 100 colleges and universities that got a letter from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asking for information about their efforts to lobby for federal earmarks are trying to figure out how to respond.

John Hart, a Coburn spokesman, said Monday that the senator is particularly interested in finding out how lobbyists that colleges hire work, and whether there’s a “pay to play” system that forces colleges to waste money by “spending extravagantly” on lobbyists.

The letter asks the selected colleges -- which Hart said were chosen because they receive large numbers and dollar amounts of earmarked research and other funds -- to provide information about all federal money they have been appropriated since 2000, what it has been used for, and whether the institution has “considered hiring a lobbyist.”

Earmarks -- often derided as "pork-barrel spending" -- are funds that a member of Congress directs to recipients that are chosen outside the normal peer-review process that federal agencies use to allocate most of their research and other funds. Colleges have a love-hate relationship with the practice; many university officials believe it undermines peer review, but others say it levels the playing field for less-established institutions that don't thrive in a review system they say can operate as an old boys' network.

Hart said that Coburn, who chairs the Senate Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, is not singling out higher education, and has sought similar information from, for example, the Small Business Administration.

“Most earmarks universities get are for legitimate projects,” Hart said. “But clearly some would not be. [Coburn] is more concerned with the process." Hart added that, "as well intentioned as the House and Senate appropriations committees might be, they may not be well suited for peer review.”

Hart said that Coburn describes the earmarking process as “the gateway drug to overspending,” and added that if institutions feel compelled to spend money on lobbyists, they could end up passing on those costs to students. Hart said that recent high profile lobbying scandals, like those involving Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), have “highlighted the degree to which Congress and K Street have abused the earmark process.”

Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education, said that “ACE is in the process of retaining counsel to advise the affected institutions on the range of options they have in responding to this letter.” The letter, which asks for a reply by September 1, is not a subpoena, but Steinbach said that it is imperative to “provide the affected institutions with the best possible advice with regards to what their rights and responsibilities are.”

An article Monday in Roll Call quoted one anonymous Republican lobbyist as saying that he or she is advising colleges not to respond because the letter is “disingenuous” and “a trap.”

“That’s the worst possible advice,” Hart said. “That mentality of secrecy is what the public despises. All that will bring is perhaps unnecessary scrutiny for firms.”

Hart added that colleges don’t necessarily have to have all the information by September 1, but that they should at least reply, and that staff members will be available to answer their questions and work with them.


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