The Dangerous Spread Of Earmarks

Posted: Nov 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Medical colleges have become carbon copies of the "self-interested lobbying efforts of the private sector," Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., President of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said at the Association's meeting in Seattle last month. Kirch addressed his concern that medical colleges may have forgone the common good to pursue private interest. He expressed concern that many medical colleges were seeking funding through legislative earmarks which, he added, are often considered to be "pork barrel projects."

The zeal of Senator Thomas Coburn, M.D. (R-OK), for ending earmarks may exceed Kirch's and certainly is shared by few of his Senate colleagues. Coburn is unafraid to stir things up but surely deserves credit for working to build bridges across party and ideological lines. Conversing with WASHINGTON TIMES reporter Charles Hurt earlier this year, Coburn credited liberal Senators, such as Barack Obama (D-IL) and Russell Feingold (D-WI), for realizing "that even though their philosophy on government is much different than mine on the role of government to be involved in so many things - that unless we control spending, the very things they want to do for people aren't going to be available."

Coburn, as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, has been crusading against the overuse of earmarking. It is the position of the Free Congress Foundation that not all earmarking is detrimental to the public interest; there are limited instances when it may be useful and acceptable to obtain funds for a needed project. There is no doubt that earmarking has become an overused tool used by Senators and Representatives to fund projects with Federal taxpayers' money. Citizens Against Government Waste identified nearly 10,000 projects stuffed into appropriations bills this year, representing over $29 billion.

Coburn sent letters in late July to 113 colleges and universities inquiring as to whether they had received earmarks and how had that money been used. He explained his reasoning:

"It is indefensible for institutions of higher learning to demand more and more money from the public through tuition and tax dollars while keeping the public in the dark about how they spend public funds. The least a college or university can do that has benefited from thousands or millions of dollars in earmarked funds is to provide the public with clear accounting of how those funds were used."

Responses were slow, sometimes incomplete. "Failing to provide any response whatsoever to this letter is not merely an affront to Congress, and our constitutional duty to oversee federal spending, but to every American taxpayer who finances earmarks," Coburn asserted in mid-September. As of November 7, 97 colleges and universities had responded, five said they would be late in responding, and 10 yet had not responded.

Coburn is not alone in opposing such earmarking. Some academics question its value. James D. Savage, Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, in "Twenty Years Later, The Rise of Academic Earmarking and Its Effect on Academic Science," an article published in the SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY YEARBOOK 2002 issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, states reasons to oppose academic earmarking. Savage writes that academic earmarking "undermines the peer review process." There are academics who charge peer review creates its own biases; Savage counters that earmarking also does because "neither scientific merit nor political influence is equally distributed." Influential Members of Congress can wield their clout to obtain projects for universities and colleges in or near their districts, whether such projects are truly worthwhile.

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, in a September 26, 2003 article reviewing the top recipients of academic pork, "Academic Pork Barrel Tops $2 Billion for the First Time," notes that a "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 Committee in the Senate and House of Representatives." Peer review, however, states ALL ABOUT PORK: THE ABUSE OF EARMARKS AND THE NEEDED REFORMS, a booklet issued by Citizens Against Government Waste, has been determined to be a solid and fair process by the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service.

Savage notes that when former Representative George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA), Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, held hearings on earmarking in the 1990s, he had actually asked 50 universities to send material as to how they handled the earmarked funds. "Virtually no school provided any information on the quality of what they were doing. Nobody offered information on the standard indicators of quality (such as patents produced, new journal articles and books written, Ph.D.s awarded, the number of women and minority graduate students added, etc.) in defense of their earmarking."

Coburn intends to press on with his investigation into earmarking although he will be in the minority on the Federal Financial Management Subcommittee next year. A fact sheet issued by the Subcommittee notes that the last time Congress took a serious look at academic earmarking was in the 1990s.

Coburn is one Senator who truly is thinking well beyond the next photo op. "Throughout our history, presidents and lawmakers cut back non-defense spending during times of war. Today, Congress must follow that precedent and begin to curb the increase in spending on nonessential activities," Coburn has explained. Coburn's call for fiscal stringency is not always appreciated even by members of his own party. Coburn realizes that today's spending becomes tomorrow's debt, which will force younger Americans to dig deeper into their pockets if merely to pay the interest. "It's really a simple question -- pay now or charge it to your grandchildren," Coburn declared late last year when Congress was considering restructuring the student loan program. "We were sent here to make the hard choices."

Coburn will not relent in his crusade against unrestrained earmarking, including earmarks to universities and colleges. The election results have no bearing upon his desire to assure more control is exercised over Federal spending.

Federal spending remains a most serious problem, particularly the mounting debt and the lack of oversight exercised by Congress over the money it appropriates. Coburn provides the due diligence over how our tax dollars are spent that citizens should expect from Congress, no matter which party is in power. He does not seek to score political points, simply to obtain the truth. He pointedly attempts to build independent bridges. He provides an example for the 110th Congress.

Coburn's crusade to instill more accountability and oversight into the process of appropriations will continue. Incoming legislators should seek to profit from his example.