Critics of Congressional earmarks harshly attacked President Obama and members of his administration Monday, accusing the White House of ignoring the president's campaign promise to end the use of lawmaker-directed projects as a way of allocating precious federal funds. But it's unlikely that many of those complaints will be coming from colleges, which stand to benefit -- to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars -- from the pork barrel-laden fiscal 2009 spending bill that is prompting the outcry.
The arguments for and against earmarked spending -- 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 by now well worn. They’re regularly derided by critics as fostering the waste of tax dollars and encouraging a sometimes secretive circumvention of the traditional peer review processes, which often results 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.
President Bush regularly railed against earmarks, especially late in his time in office, and they gained a high profile in the 2008 presidential campaign, with the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, putting them virtually at the center of his domestic policy, to the point that he was sometimes ridiculed for talking about little else. President Obama, not to be left out, himself vowed to crack down on earmarks.
But the omnibus spending bill for the 2009 fiscal year that Congressional Democrats released last month, having deferred action from last year because they wanted to avoid a fight with the lame duck Bush administration over spending priorities and earmarks, is filled with what critics estimate to be 9,000 earmarks designated by members of Congress.
Administration officials said that the Obama would sign the legislation despite the earmarks, with the White House budget director, Peter Orszag, explaining on the Sunday morning political talk shows that the administation considered the 2009 budget to be "last year's business" and that the president, while remaining opposed to earmarks, wanted to "just move on."
That brought angry denunciations from McCain and others on the Senate floor Monday as Congress's senior chamber debated the omnibus spending measure. "What, so throw open the barn door and let this omnibus be filled with 9,000 earmarks and you will just look the other way, despite your pledges in opposition to earmarks? What happened to his pledge last September, when President Obama said during the debate in Oxford, Miss., 'We need earmark reform, and when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely' ?" (McCain proposed scrapping the omnibus bill and instead extending, for the rest of the 2009 fiscal year, the continuing resolution that is set to expire Friday.)
The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, was pressed further at a briefing for reporters Monday, where one noted that the president's closest associates were responsible for some of the earmarks.
"It has been learned," one reporter said, "that Vice President Biden has, I think it’s $750,000 for the University of Delaware satellite station, and Rahm Emanuel $900,000 for the Chicago Planetarium. Since the president talked so much about earmarks in the campaign and as president about keeping them out of the stimulus -- I know this is left-over business from last year, but it’s something that he is either going to sign or veto. Why not have, you know, the earmarks that come from his administration, essentially, at least taken out to send a signal, number one. And No. 2, is there any chance he’ll veto this bill and send it back and say, 'Get these earmarks out, there’s over 9,000 of them' ?"
"What, so throw open the barn door and let this omnibus be filled with 9,000 earmarks and you will just look the other way, despite your pledges in opposition to earmarks?
-- John McCain
Gibbs rebuffed that idea, but promised a crackdown going forward. "I think what’s most important and what the president would tell you is important here is that though he doesn’t control everything that happened before he became president of the United States, that dozens and dozens and dozens of appropriations bills will go through Congress and come to his desk over the course of the next four years."
Shhhh, Stop Complaining!
Calculating exactly how much earmarked money the omnibus legislation contains and who would receive it will take some doing, both because the spending bill and the accompanying reports that explain it are thousands of pages long, and because, despite new Congressional rules on transparency, the descriptions of the projects do not in every case seem to identify the recipient.
For instance, a list of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in the portion of the spending bill for the Energy Department would deliver $380,600 for the "Carbon Neutral Green Campus," in Nevada. No college is noted, but an Office of Management and Budget database of earmarks attributes it to Nevada State College. Similarly, a $1,522,400 award for a "geothermal power generation plant" in Oregon fails to note that the money would go to the Oregon Institute of Technology. And all of the many, many grants for research projects within the U.S. Department of Agriculture identify the projects by name -- "Cranberry/Blueberry Disease and Breeding, N.J." -- but not by recipient.
But judging just from the money that the bill makes clear would go to colleges and universities, they would benefit mightily from the omnibus legislation.
The section of the spending bill for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies includes at least $179 million in earmarks for colleges and universities, for instance. Institutions in Mississippi and Hawaii, which are represented by the senior Republican (Thad Cochran) and Democratic chairman (Daniel Inouye), respectively, of the Senate Appropriations Committee, would fare particularly well.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget would provide $2 million for the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative, $700,000 for its Institute of Marine Biology, and $1.25 million for its Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research. The University of Mississippi would get $7.35 million for three different research projects.
The University of Mississippi's Medical Center would also get $6.5 million in an earmark from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's research construction fund, as would Mississippi State University. The big winner from NIST earmarks would be the University of Alabama: $30 million for an "interdisciplinary science and engineering teaching and research corridor."
The Health Resources and Services Administration, under the portion of the omnibus legislation for education, labor, and health and human services, contains hundreds of millions of dollars for health-care related facilities, including more than $100 million divided among scores of colleges and universities.
Among the would-be recipients: Iowa State University ($666,000) and Iowa Western Community College ($476,000) for facilities and equipment, Marshall University ($3.996 million for Translational Genomic Research Institute), the Nevada System of Higher Education ($951,000 for nursing and medical clinical skills labs), Montgomery College ($714,000 for biotechnology equipment), the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa ($9.515 million for construction and equipment), the University of Louisville ($8.563 million), and West Virginia University ($3.996 million for a multiple sclerosis center).
Also through the HRSA budget, Clark Atlanta University, which is facing serious financial turmoil, would receive $428,000 for facilities and equipment.
More than 300 colleges would snag a piece of about $91 million in earmarked projects to be provided in the budget of the Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, and dozens more, mostly in partnerships with school districts and nonprofit groups, would get a piece of the $88 million allocated through the Fund for the Improvement of Education.
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