The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 10, 2001

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Top congressional porkers in education

A Record Year at the Federal Trough: Colleges Feast on $1.67-Billion in Earmarks

Budget surplus feeds Congress's pork-barrel spending, intensifying criticism

By JEFFREY BRAINARD and RON SOUTHWICK

Washington

Congressional spending for the academic pork barrel ballooned by 60 percent this year, to the largest total ever, as lawmakers carved up the federal surplus for their home states.

For the 2001 fiscal year, Congress directed federal agencies to award at least $1.668-billion to projects involving specific universities, according to an analysis by The Chronicle. That total is $624-million higher than last year's, and more than five times the 1996 sum of $296-million. The Chronicle began its annual survey in 1989.

The 2001 numbers stand out by any measure: the largest single-year increase, the largest number of institutions receiving money, the largest number of projects.

This year has also brought a renewed debate about pork-barrel spending, as President Bush has condemned the practice as wasteful. Some university officials and scholars fear that the directed grants, called earmarks, are out of control and are eating into funds for peer-reviewed science. Agencies award the earmarked money without the merit-based competition typically used to distribute government funds for research, facilities, and other university projects.

Leaders of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of research institutions, plan to resume encouraging its members to control their appetite for earmarks -- an idea that has caused dissension and yielded few results in the past. Nevertheless, "to have individual members [of Congress] decide how individual research grants are awarded can only be harmful to the scientific research enterprise in the long run," says Nils Hasselmo, the association's president.

Directed grants are also controversial because universities must rely on connections to members of the powerful appropriations committees in Congress, which set the budget, to obtain earmarks. For example, New Hampshire, the only state with no earmarks in 1995, leapt to seventh among states this year. In 1999, one of the state's senators, Judd Gregg, a Republican, became the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee and began working actively to secure the funds.

Defenders of pork-barrel spending have long argued that the dollar amount dedicated to it pales in comparison to the government's spending on peer-reviewed research. However, if spending on earmarks continues to rise sharply, that gap may soon narrow.

Supporters of the grants also say that without the earmarked appropriations, some worthy projects would languish. The government's competitively awarded research grants go to a disproportionately small group of elite institutions, the supporters say, and the agencies' spending priorities are too narrow.

Data about earmarks come from The Chronicle's annual survey of federal spending measures and the Congressional reports that explain them. Some of the projects focus on national needs -- such as improving water quality and expanding access to health care in rural and urban areas. In other cases, the rationale for spending federal money is less obvious. The University of Idaho got $700,000 to study historic jazz, for example. And the University of Alaska at Fairbanks received $645,000 to develop a machine to debone wild salmon.

Lawmakers have gone hog-wild for earmarks since Republicans won control of Congress, in 1994, on a pledge to cut spending. The set-asides dipped in the 1996 fiscal year -- under the first budget crafted by Republican leaders -- but have risen ever since. Republican control of both chambers of Congress continued through last year, when the 2001 spending plan was approved.

Every president since Jimmy Carter has spoken out against earmarks. In February, while unveiling his first budget plan, President Bush vowed to put a lid on pork-barrel spending. But he now appears to be backing down.

In April, Mr. Bush proposed cutting the total amount of money available for Congress to earmark in 2002 to $8-billion, half of this year's $16-billion total. But already, lawmakers have restored the money for some agencies in 2002, with members of Congress and their staffs largely dismissing Mr. Bush's efforts.

Then in July, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, sounded a retreat. Instead of battling all earmarks, he said, the president would accept the projects as long as Congress served up spending bills that stayed below overall ceilings proposed by Mr. Bush. Mr. Daniels added that he would not recommend that the president veto any appropriations bills simply because of earmarks.

Sen. John McCain, the reform-minded Republican from Arizona, has had no better luck in pressing the issue. Last month, Mr. McCain proposed an amendment to strip $433-million in earmarks from the 2002 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, which includes funds for national parks, wildlife management, and energy research. One of the earmarks he proposed eliminating was $1-million for Montana State University at Bozeman to study noxious weeds.

"I know this amendment will not pass, but everybody ought to be on record as to whether they support this kind of pork-barreling," Mr. McCain said before the vote on the Senate floor. Sure enough, his amendment failed, 87 to 12.

In the end, Mr. Bush may have little choice but to accept earmarks. The practice has long been supported by both parties, and greases the skids in Congress for overall spending measures.

Several factors have fueled the bipartisan appetite for pork. The federal budget surplus for 2000 was a record $236-billion. And with control of Congress riding on a few close races last year, Republican leaders gave earmarks to some incumbents who were facing tough challenges.

The process is driven, of course, by a flood of requests from universities, their lobbyists, and other constituents for pork. Already, the House of Representatives appropriations committee has been deluged with requests for 18,898 academic and other projects in 2002, with a total price tag of $279-billion. That's almost the size of this year's Pentagon budget.

The trend in recent years reflects what one university lobbyist calls "a feeding frenzy." Academic scientists and administrators see other institutions obtain earmarks, and figure they should get a piece of the action.

"Each state capitalizes on it as best as they can," says Win Phillips, vice president for research at the University of Florida.

In 2001, universities in states represented on Congressional appropriations committees fared especially well. "If you were in the earmarking business last year, and you didn't have a good year [in 2001], either you didn't have a well-placed congressman or you were sleeping," says Bill Croker, director of federal-government relations at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Indeed, 9 of the 10 states that received the most earmarked funds not shared with any partners had lawmakers who led appropriations subcommittees last year. Around Capitol Hill, the panel chairmen are known as "cardinals."

The 10th, West Virginia, was represented by Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and now its chairman, Mr. Byrd has long worked to secure projects for his state.

In contrast, only one of the 10 states that received the least earmarked funds had a lawmaker leading an appropriations panel.

Far from being abashed about the appearance of pork-barrel favoritism, members of Congress have published dozens of news releases trumpeting their roles in obtaining the appropriations. In a release titled "Proud of Pork," Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, the second-most-senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, "I can proudly justify any of the projects targeted" by critics. This year, Hawaii universities received at least $24-million in earmarks for 25 projects.

Members of the spending committees say that they do not support earmarks if they and their staffs think the projects lack merit. "Politicians don't want to do it if it's going to fail," agrees Florida's Mr. Phillips. "They want to know if you have the expertise."

Florida institutions have the benefit of a friend in a particularly high place. Rep. C. W. (Bill) Young, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House appropriations panel, helped the University of Florida pull in at least $18-million in earmarks in 2001.

New Hampshire offers a telling picture of how a legislator's ascent can benefit a state's universities.

In 1999, Mr. Gregg became chairman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Departments of Commerce and Justice. Mr. Gregg then helped steer large sums to the University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College. They ranked fourth and fifth this year, respectively, in receipt of earmarks not shared with partners.

Because of the Democrats' takeover of the Senate, Mr. Gregg is no longer chairman of the panel, but he remains its top-ranking Republican.

The earmarks sponsored by Mr. Gregg this year included two of the largest single grants. Mr. Gregg backed an $18-million earmark to Dartmouth to study ways to counter cybercrimes, and a $15-million grant for that purpose in 2000. Also in 2001, the University of New Hampshire received $14-million to build a coastal marine laboratory and a pier for docking research vessels.

Donald C. Sundberg, the university's vice president for research and public service, says the institution did not merely reap the benefits of Mr. Gregg's clout. Rather, its strong programs in coastal science, ocean mapping, and climate change helped convince the senator that the university would use the funds effectively and make important research contributions.

"It's a combination of his being in that position and our university having programs with substance," Mr. Sundberg says.

After years of obscurity in the competition for federal dollars, Maine's institutions also received an unprecedented windfall. Congress directed at least $17-million in earmarks to the state, mostly to the University of Maine at Orono. In the previous five years combined, the state had drawn only $1.5-million in earmarked funds not shared with partners.

The state's two Republican senators, Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, steered this year's funds to Maine, says Daniel J. Dwyer, vice provost for research on the Orono campus. "One reason for doing that is Maine is on the bottom of just about every list in federal R&D expenditures," Mr. Dwyer says.

However, he rejects the notion that the university's researchers need earmarked funds because they are unable to win money through competitive review. The university seeks earmarks to improve its laboratories in part to better prepare its scientists to submit applications for peer-reviewed funds.

"It's not that our folks can't come up with good ideas," says Mr. Dwyer. "But they do need basic infrastructure, labor, instrumentation, and [funds to hire] graduate students, so they can write those proposals."

Money for building research laboratories and purchasing equipment topped many universities' wish lists for earmarks in 2001. Congress delivered: Lawmakers provided $345-million for 118 such projects, up from $119-million in 1999.

Those earmarks represent a departure from the federal government's traditional reluctance to give universities direct grants for constructing or renovating labs, a policy that has long frustrated many academic administrators.

Within the Department of Health and Human Services budget this year, Congress directed $168.3-million to 58 building projects at colleges, primarily at medical centers. The amount is more than double the $75-million that Congress spent on a National Institutes of Health program that awards construction grants on the basis of merit review, the only federal program of its kind.

"I would hope that a strong competitive program would take pressure off institutions to go for pork," says Anthony Mazzaschi, assistant vice president for research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, who calls the $75-million program insufficient.

William Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University, leads an advisory panel that urged the N.I.H. in June to increase annual spending on the construction-grants program to $1-billion. Part of that money could be reserved for smaller institutions and historically black colleges, he says. But all N.I.H. construction funds for research institutions "should be merit-based," he says. "It shouldn't be set-aside."

How Congress earmarked the construction projects for this year highlights what budget hawks say is one of the most infuriating aspects of pork-barrel spending. The House of Representatives initially approved no funds for such projects in the Health and Human Services Department budget bill, while the Senate initially set aside only $10-million for that purpose. Then the proposals went to a conference committee, where a handful of appropriators from each chamber met privately to resolve differences between the two bills. Rather than meeting halfway, the conferees negotiated a mammoth increase.

"This is Washington math," says Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which opposes earmarks. "Washington math is you take the difference and you triple it."

Peer-reviewed funds were pitted against earmarks in several other federal agencies this year. To help pay for the deluge of earmarks, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration cut grants to researchers in the life sciences by 5 percent across the board.

That can cause problems for scientists, says Gregory A. Wray, an associate professor of biology at Duke University. Mr. Wray won a $130,000 grant from NASA to study how proteins affect genetic development. The reduction eliminated most of his money to attend conferences to present his work; a cut much larger would have reduced salaries for research assistants, he says.

It is frustrating, Mr. Wray says, to see his grant cut to finance projects that received no scrutiny from scientists. "To get peer-reviewed money, you have to do something," he says.

Kevin B. Marvel, who directs policy programs for the American Astronomical Society, says the earmarks may damage NASA's long-term planning. "When they get too big, earmarks interfere with programs the scientific community has put together," he says.

As Congress continues work on spending bills for 2002, there seems to be little brake on the upward spiral of earmarks. Besides Senator McCain, few voices in Congress regularly speak out against pork-barreling. The chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, offers little criticism of earmarks.

"I prefer awarding [research grants] based upon merit-based peer review," says Mr. Boehlert, a New York Republican who assumed the chairmanship in January. "But I'm also a realist. So I know there's going to be some earmarking. It's part of this institution." He adds: "Most of the earmarks, and there are some exceptions, shouldn't embarrass anybody who looks at them."

Mr. Boehlert concedes that he seeks earmarks for his district, including two this year for public-school projects totaling $553,000.

But the torrid pace of earmarking may slow if the budget surplus for 2001 is less than projected. The nation's economic downturn is expected to reduce the government's tax revenues. A large drop in the surplus could put a serious squeeze on overall federal spending next year, because the tax cut championed by President Bush has already reduced the money available.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hasselmo of the Association of American Universities says the upward trend is worrisome enough that he will call on the group's members this fall to refrain from seeking some kinds of earmarks -- those that "undermine" peer review.

A similar request failed miserably in the 1980's, when the association's members voted to refrain from seeking earmarks. Members sought them anyway, and the policy fell apart. For 2001, 51 of the group's 61 American members received earmarked money, totaling $178-million, more than 10 percent of this year's earmarked funds.

Some smaller research institutions have viewed the association's actions on earmarks as especially hypocritical, because its members already receive a large portion of the total federal spending on academic research.

Mr. Hasselmo says he is not proposing an outright ban. "Associations should not dictate to members how they must behave," he says.

Other higher-education lobbying groups are silent on earmarks because they do not want to anger lawmakers as they decide how much to spend on scientific research, says C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

"Some of the big champions of the N.I.H. and the National Science Foundation are also some of those who are most identified with earmarks," says Mr. Magrath. "You have to think carefully about whether you want to antagonize someone."

Mr. Hasselmo says the Association of American Universities should help study the effect of earmarks on federally sponsored research -- for example, whether research projects financed through earmarks are as worthy as projects selected by peer review. No studies have systematically examined that question. "I'd like to see if we can move toward some restrictions on earmarking, so that it doesn't become rampant," Mr. Hasselmo adds. He calls peer review "the bulwark of scientific research."

That kind of discussion would be useful, says Howard J. Gobstein, assistant vice president and director of federal relations at Michigan State University. He helped his university, a member of both associations, obtain at least $2-million in earmarked funds this year. Those projects are valid, as are some earmarked projects at other universities, Mr. Gobstein says. But he calls the overall trend in earmarks "very dangerous."

University officials justify earmarks by noting that Congress has generally avoided placing them in the budgets of the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, the two largest sources of funds for academic research. But Mr. Gobstein and others predict that the explosion of earmarks in other agencies may embolden some members of Congress to earmark funds for the N.I.H. and the N.S.F. as the price of continued healthy growth in those agencies' budgets. "If 10 years from now, 50 percent of federal funds for academic research is earmarked," Mr. Gobstein says, "I'm concerned that we're going to get to that point without having discussed it beforehand."


TOP RECIPIENTS OF PORK, 2001
1999 list
  Total non-shared
earmarks
1. U of Alaska at Fairbanks $35,048,470
2. Loma Linda U $35,000,000
3. Marshall U $27,563,000
4. U of New Hampshire $27,509,400
5. Dartmouth College $25,900,000
6. U of Missouri at Columbia $23,730,176
7. U of Mississippi $23,663,570
8. U of Alabama at Birmingham $22,118,672
9. U of Nebraska at Lincoln $19,500,000
10. Kansas State U $18,278,000
11. U of Florida $18,261,000
12. Mississippi State U $18,181,549
13. Pennsylvania State U at University Park $16,706,500
14. Wheeling Jesuit U $16,268,600
15. U of Maine at Orono $16,188,000
16. West Virginia U at Morgantown $15,592,333
17. Auburn University $15,175,149
18. U of South Carolina at Columbia $14,616,000
19. Southern Illinois U at Edwardsville $14,276,000
20. U of Alabama at Tuscaloosa $14,224,288
21. U of South Florida $13,159,250
22. U of Minnesota-Twin Cities $12,655,000
23. U of Louisville $12,482,000
24. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology $12,450,000
25. U of Southern Mississippi $11,754,430
26. Montana State U at Bozeman $11,147,000
27. Washington State U $10,457,643
28. U of Hawaii-Manoa $10,383,982
29. Medical U of South Carolina $10,000,000
30. U of Miami $9,520,060
Note: Each year, Congress directs federal agencies to support certain projects at specific universities. The Chronicle ranked universities by the total dollar value of earmarks that Congress did not require these colleges to share with any partners. Many colleges also received earmarks that they were required to share with other colleges, businesses, or other government laboratories. Agencies did not always report what portion of these earmarks was designated for each partner, and so those amounts are not included. Specific campuses are named, where known.
SOURCE: Chronicle reporting



The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 10, 2001
Section: Government & Politics
Page: A20