Academic Pork Barrel Tops $2-Billion for the First Time
Congress directs millions to college projects on security and terrorism
By JEFFREY BRAINARD and ANNE MARIE BORREGO
Although it faced soaring demands on federal spending and a burgeoning budget
deficit, Congress still directed more than $2-billion this year to pork-barrel projects at colleges and universities. That record level marked the first time that academic earmarks had surpassed $2-billion.
Lawmakers provided a total of at least $2.012-billion for projects involving specific colleges and universities in the 2003 fiscal year, according to data collected by The Chronicle. That represents an increase of 10 percent over the previous year's total of $1.837-billion.
The record spending continues a steady, seven-year trend of large annual increases by Congress for the directed, noncompetitive appropriations, also called earmarks. The 2003 total was more than six times as high as the $296-million that Congress provided in 1996.
The 2003 fiscal year, which ends next week, also brought continued growth in the number of academic institutions receiving earmarks.
Some 716 colleges made the list this year, up from 668 in 2002. The number of earmarks, meanwhile, increased by nearly 20 percent, to 1,964.
Much of the growth was driven by increased spending on homeland security and anti-terrorism, both of which have become priorities for some university researchers since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Congress provided $223-million for those projects in 2003, up from $126-million in 2002 and $73-million in 2001.
The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, for instance, got $1-million to study ways to protect water supplies from terrorism. Legislators gave Texas A&M University at College Station $20-million to train emergency personnel to respond to terrorist attacks.
A Plethora of Projects
As in past years, Congress also provided money for a plethora of favored projects unrelated to security.
The University of Missouri at Columbia, for example, got $1.7-million for research on cultivating shiitake mushrooms. And the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the University of Hawaii-Manoa each got $250,000 to catalog historical records in preparation for their states' celebration, in 2009, of the 50th anniversary of statehood.
The single largest earmark in 2003, for $21-million, went to the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for an optical astronomy observatory that will have some military applications. New Mexico Tech also received the most money over all, some $56-million.
The directed appropriations are controversial because colleges rely on lawmakers with political influence and seniority to secure them. In addition, Congress does not require the earmarked projects to go through the open, peer-reviewed competitions that federal agencies typically use to award money for scientific research and other projects in higher education. In those competitions, agency employees who are experts in particular fields oversee the awarding of grants and contracts to colleges, based on merit. In many cases, the agency also receives advice from panels of academics.
Critics complain that members of Congress and their aides choose recipients of the directed grants based on their own judgments, often after lobbying by the colleges seeking the money. As a result, some observers worry that earmarked funds go to scientific-research projects that are not of the highest quality and do not serve national priorities.
"One of our great strengths is our refusal to politicize science," says Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who resigned as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in June to run for governor of Indiana in next year's election. "We start down that ski slope at our peril."
During his time at the White House, Mr. Daniels tried unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to reduce pork-barrel spending for scientific research, and he butted heads with lawmakers over the issue.
Little Improvement in Quality
Members of Congress and college officials, who for the most part support earmarking, counter that the practice is a necessary alternative to help worthy projects that agencies have wrongly rejected or misjudged. Even so, the limited evidence available about the results of academic earmarking suggests that the directed grants do not help institutions improve the quality of their scientific research, on average.
University officials faced with a sluggish economy also argue that they need earmarks to supplement tight spending for higher education by the states. Yet the spurt in academic earmarks actually started in the late 1990s, when many states were flush with cash.
Some observers had expected the torrid pace of growth in academic earmarks to cool this year, as the federal deficit rose.
In August 2002, as lawmakers were working on the budget, the Congressional Budget Office projected the deficit for 2003 at $145-billion. Last month the office revised the estimate sharply upward, to $401-billion, and offered a worse outlook for 2004. That increase stemmed from the emergency costs of military operations in Iraq and from declining federal revenues (which in turn resulted partly from tax cuts secured by the Bush administration). The budget office also predicted that federal deficits would continue through the decade.
Nevertheless, federal spending for nondefense projects is projected to rise by more than 8 percent in 2003, and defense spending by 17 percent. The 10-percent increase in spending for academic earmarks falls in between.
Large Grants to Large Colleges
Almost 60 percent of the academic-earmark funds went for research projects in the natural or social sciences, and 13 percent for research buildings or equipment, The Chronicle's survey found.
To be sure, not all earmarked funds go for research. Some pay for building parking garages or campus roads. Congress has a long history of giving communities pork-barrel funds for such projects.
However, some critics of earmarking worry that total pork-barrel spending for academic research projects has become too large when compared with all federal spending for academic research. In 2003, the $1.445-billion in research earmarks equaled 8 percent of the $19.191-billion spent by the federal government for academic research over all in the 2001 fiscal year, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Some of the research-related earmarks were very large: 46 were for $5-million or more. That sum is far larger than the average grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation through peer-reviewed competitions.
Lack of Government Funds
Universities seek research earmarks partly because the federal government fails to provide large grants that reflect the realities of modern research, college officials say. Some of those studies require expensive equipment and laboratories, as well as large teams of scientists.
For the most part, federal agencies do not pay directly for the construction of research buildings, saying it is not a federal responsibility.
One of the few exceptions is a peer-reviewed, competitive grants program run by the National Institutes of Health, which Congress gave $120-million in 2003.
By comparison, Congress earmarked $232-million for research buildings and equipment in 2003. For example, Brown University got $2.25-million to construct a life-sciences building.
College officials also defend earmarks as helping enhance the research capabilities of institutions that have traditionally not received much federal money for research. But many of the universities with the most earmarked funds in 2003 had already obtained a lot of federal money through more traditional, peer-reviewed routes.
It's Whom You Know
Of the 30 top recipients of academic pork in 2003, 17 were also among the 100 academic institutions receiving the most federal research funds over all in the 2001 fiscal year, the most recent for which figures are available. And of those 100 institutions, 89 received a combined total of $573-million in earmarked funds for research in 2003, or 40 percent of all academic-research pork.
Another common denominator among the academic institutions that get the most earmarked funds is that they are frequently located in states represented by an influential member of Congress, especially one who sits on the powerful Appropriations Committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Even better, it appears, is to have a member who is chairman of one of the 26 appropriations subcommittees. (There are 13 in each chamber, each overseeing a separate appropriations bill.) That pattern continued even in 2003, when the appropriations process was interrupted by a change in party control in the Senate.
Democrats still held a slim majority in October 2002, when Congress passed two spending bills for the Defense Department. In the November election, Republicans won a 51-to-48 majority in the Senate, while the House remained in Republican control. Congress went on to complete work, in February, on the remaining spending bills, more than four months after the 2003 fiscal year began.
When the shift in Senate control is taken into account, universities in states that had a chairman of an appropriations subcommittee, or of the full appropriations panel, got more earmarked dollars in 2003.
Seven of the 10 states that got the most earmarked cash for academic projects in the two Pentagon bills had such representation. Only 2 of the 10 states that got the least had such representation, according to The Chronicle's analysis.
That disparity among states with and without such clout remained almost the same for nondefense spending when the all-Republican lineup of subcommittee chairmen finished work on the remaining appropriations bills for 2003, in February.
"You can't expect members of Congress not to grab at opportunities to, as they see it, deliver for their constituents," says Mr. Daniels, the former White House budget chief.
Still, the growing federal deficit and increasing costs in Iraq may well put a lid on earmarks in future years, observers say.
"I think that, going forward, it will be hard to see [these] kinds of increases," says H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president of Van Scoyoc Associates, a lobbying firm here that advises colleges on securing earmarks and other federal funds. "I think it will be leveling off" even as more colleges seek earmarks, he adds.
Indeed, the federal government's overall fiscal health may be the main constraint on future spending on earmarks, says James D. Savage, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia who is a critic of academic pork.
But so far, he notes, Congress has not reined in spending.
Meanwhile, college administrators are under strong and growing pressure to maximize the number of federal dollars they receive, says Mr. Savage, who is also assistant vice president for research and federal relations at the University of Virginia. Many college officials view earmarks as ways to help promote technology-oriented economic development in their regions.
Earmarking, once controversial in some academic circles, "is now ingrained," he says. "Clearly there are no constraints on higher education internally not to earmark."
Even though President Bush has advocated holding the line on federal spending, he lacks a line-item veto that would allow him to delete earmarks from appropriations bills.
What's more, Mr. Daniels acknowledges that while he was the White House budget chief, he did not make use of another weapon: directing federal agencies to ignore the Congressional earmarks. Almost all of the directed appropriations appear in sections of spending bills that are not legally binding on the agencies. They simply describe the lawmakers' intent for how the appropriations should be spent.
But if the Bush administration tried to wield that tool, it surely would draw howls of protest from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Of his own oratorical campaign against earmarks, Mr. Daniels says, "If we were ever very persuasive with members of Congress on this subject, I couldn't detect it."
HOW THE STATES RANK IN ACADEMIC PORK
earmarks in millions
||District of Columbia
||U.S. Virgin Islands
||Federated States of Micronesia
|Note: Each year Congress directs federal agencies to support certain projects at specific universities. The Chronicle ranked states by the total dollar value of earmarks that went to colleges in those states and that Congress did not require to be shared with any partners in other states. Many colleges received earmarks that they were required to share with other colleges, businesses, or government laboratories. Agencies did not always report what portion of these earmarks was designated for each partner, and so those amounts are not included. This ranking includes the value of shared earmarks where all the partners were academic institutions located in one state. Sums are rounded, but states are ranked in order of actual amounts received.|
SOURCE: Chronicle reporting
Section: Government & Politics
Volume 50, Issue 5, Page A18
September 26, 2003
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education