Business as Usual on Earmarks

March 17, 2008

Peer review and merit based on competitive grants have always been hallmarks of the research enterprise, with one continuing exception: the budget process.

Despite increasing opposition to directed funding for lawmakers' pet projects from budget hawks and fiscal conservatives, the Senate resoundly rejected a proposed one-year moratorium on earmarks last Thursday, with a vote of 71-29, reinforcing a sense in the higher education world that the practice continues to reap benefits -- even if it circumvents established budget procedures. It would appear that most members of the Senate, despite some public criticisms of earmarks, seem to agree.

The moratorium -- which some insiders had reportedly predicted before the vote would actually pass -- illustrates the dichotomy surrounding earmarks, which are derisively called "pork-barrel spending" by critics and have come under increasing scrutiny after projects like the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska became known. While many agree that the projects can be wasteful and subject to the whims of lawmakers and powerful lobbyists, those on the receiving end typically have no trouble seeing their benefits, especially when the recipients are home-state constituents, for example, or institutions of higher learning that otherwise wouldn't have a shot at major federal dollars to support basic and applied research or to build new research facilities.

The result is a delicate dance in which universities recognize that competitive grant processes are the preferable route to obtaining funding yet continue to lobby their state delegations to support specific projects or initiatives. "What has happened is that there’s a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude in education and other areas," said Steve Ellis, the vice president of programs at the advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense: if all the other institutions are doing it, not putting resources into lobbying for earmarks is perceived as a distinct disadvantage.

All the while, calls to reduce the volume of such earmarks have gotten louder on both sides of the aisle. The Democratic-led Congress since 2007 has attempted to make the practice more transparent, although disclosure hasn't done much to end it. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, Congress directed at least $13.2 billion toward earmarks in 2007 -- a drop in the bucket of the overall budget, to be sure, and far less than the $29 billion worth of projects passed the previous year, but the number of earmarks actually increased.

In his final State of the Union address in January, President George W. Bush threatened to veto any future appropriations bills that do not cut their number and cost in half from the previous year while announcing an executive order that would direct federal agencies to ignore earmarks, starting in fiscal year 2009, that weren't voted on. Bush's action would affect earmarks included not in legislation itself but in the reports that accompany them, a practice that allows lawmakers to direct spending without significant scrutiny. But since the order doesn't affect the current fiscal year, observers have noted that it would effectively give Congress a heads up to circumvent the procedural roadblock with relative ease in 2009.

Bush's distaste for earmarks is shared by all three major presidential contenders, who each supported the moratorium. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Congress's most noted and outspoken opponents of the directed grants, does not request earmarks at all; while he was criticized in 2006 for pursuing with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) a home-state "earmark in training" of his own, as Taxpayers for Common Sense has called a proposed $10 million William H. Rehnquist Center for the University of Arizona Law School, the measure never passed and the request was public.

Earmarks that get funded are public, but members of Congress don't have to release their initial requests. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has done so for the current fiscal year and last week released his earmark requests for fiscal years 2006 and 2007, calling for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to do the same. Obama's funded earmarks for this year total over $98 million, but his requests totaled some $320 million. Clinton won over $342 million worth of projects for this year -- but "imagine how much she requested," Ellis said.

Obama himself has committed to the one-year moratorium, while Clinton said she will limit her requests to "the most critical needs for New York and America such as providing healthcare for those suffering from the effects of 9/11, bolstering our national and homeland security, and providing our brave men and women in uniform with the resources they need to achieve their missions," said Philippe Reines, a senior advisor to the senator, in an e-mail.

"She has made public the funding she has helped to secure and will make public the requests she submits this year," Reines continued, but did not specify when.

So if the next president of the United States will at least publicly oppose excessive "pork-barrel" spending, does that mean an end to business as usual for colleges and their government relations staffs? Probably not, according to most people familiar with the issue. After all, President Bush and an ethics-minded Democratic Congressional leadership haven't yet put an end to them.

"I think there’s always going to be a need and desire for members to provide earmarks for the most part," said Cyndy A. Littlefield, the director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "That’s not to say, however, that the possibility might exist that there becomes a momentum to put moratoriums on [them], but obviously with that vote in the Senate, I think that’s an indicator that no, they really don’t want to go that route."

In other words, while the number of high-profile critics of earmark spending may have increased, the base of support for strict measures against the practice has "not massively" expanded. "I think the verdict is out at this point" on whether the movement against earmarks will become even stronger, she added.

"Clearly, opposition to earmarks is growing in the Congress. However, [Thursday's] vote makes it pretty clear that there is still pretty strong bipartisan support for them. Our greatest concern, as always, is any impact that earmarking has on the funds available for peer-reviewed research, and we will continue to express that concern," said Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities.

The organization, which represents the major research institutions, once attempted a more hard-line stance against earmarks but has since moderated its position, not calling explicitly for a ban or moratorium. AAU's president, Robert M. Berdahl, released a statement after Bush's announcement on earmarks this year supporting the measure, saying, "While AAU respects the authority of Congress to set spending priorities and most earmarks are not directed to colleges and universities, we applaud steps that have the effect of reducing academic earmarking that diverts funding from peer-reviewed research. 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."

The statement alluded to the connection, drawn by many, between funding for basic research and earmarks. Since the spending items appear in appropriations bills, they necessarily direct spending away from priorities already approved and allocated by Congress. Some have explicitly asserted that this year's surprise budget shortfall for higher education was at least partially attributable to earmarks.

Robert L. Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park and founder of the American Physical Society, has been an outspoken opponent of earmarks. "The academic earmarks of course, colleges when they found they could get it, got it," he said, in the 1980s. "And it was a mistake then. I caught a lot of flak then for opposing taking it by universities," he continued, but earmarks have "a lot of responsibility for the disaster that struck science funding this year."

"You can’t blame it all on earmarking, but that was a lot of it," he said. "The money’s got to come from somewhere," especially the science budget.

But even if that's the case, officials continue pursuing earmarks all the same. "Earmarks thrive because a very, very large part of the scientific community in harness with its political representatives find them extremely useful," said Daniel S. Greenberg, a science policy expert and the author of Science, Money and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. "And if there was really deep-seated opposition to earmarks, they would not have advanced as far as they have and they would probably be declining." (Greenberg added that earmarks steer clear of "serious" agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.)

Donald N. Langenberg, the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, thinks that earmarks can be beneficial for colleges. As part of an AAU committee on the question in the 1980s, he advocated an internal system for Congress to somehow review the merit of earmark requests. For his part, he said that his university would provide a "rational, orderly list" to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) which would then be subject to "the whims of favor and disfavor" in Congress.

To draw a stark contrast, Langenberg mentioned a University of Alaska project championed by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) -- of "bridge to nowhere" fame -- to study how to trap energy from the aurora borealis. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, the project, whose mission has since changed, has garnered at least $105.9 million since 1995.

"In a way, prohibiting earmarks is likely to be about as effective as prohibiting the sale of alcohol was," Langenberg said. "I’m afraid they are something that we’ll really have to learn to live with."

For their part, Clinton and Obama have successfully requested funding for numerous projects and centers at colleges and universities in their home states. Clinton secured $47,000 for the Pace University Women's Justice Center in White Plains, N.Y., for example, and, with Sen. Charles Schumer, her fellow Democrat from New York, directed $764,400 toward Hofstra University's "Safe and Sustainable Campus Plan."

Obama has come under fire for requesting funds for recipients with connections to his wife. He unsuccessfully sought $1 million for an expansion to the University of Chicago Medical Center, for example, where Michelle Obama was at the time a vice president. The institution and the Obamas have denied any connection; the senator has also made requests for dozens of other colleges in Illinois, such as $400,000 on behalf of Aurora University's Center for Latino Leadership and Education to "establish a family-focused after school bilingual program for Latino families that would promote academic preparation and college readiness within an underserved population."

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