Congressional earmarks: little legislative gifts

Eight million dollars is a paltry sum compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the University receives through competitive funds, student tuition and the earnings of individual departments. As a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals, though, the University collected $8 million throughout 1999 as part of $797 million in congressional funding that went to specific programs in schools of higher education across the nation.
By far, the University of Minnesota did not rank as the top recipient of earmarked funds. Loma Linda University had that honor, with slightly over $42 million. But the amount of money the University received is not the issue. Instead, it is the manner in which congressional funds are distributed that draws concern.
Much of a university’s funds for research and projects come from competitive grants. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation allow institutions of higher education to submit proposals for research money. The NSF then decides who will receive the money. This merit-based competition between institutions insures that the most deserving project — the one with the greatest positive impact on people — will be selected.
The question then turns to what happens to projects that are as noteworthy but are not granted funds. The use of the congressional funding can be a way to make up for that deficiency.
Congressional funds allow noteworthy projects that could not receive competitive grants a chance to remain alive. A good program with a bad presentation should not be a reason to deny it federal funds. Naturally, the funds are ripe for abuse. Called “pork-barrel spending” by some, the money is distributed via federal agencies, by order of Congress to projects involving specific institutions.
Although there is no competition for the money, it is not a coincidence that states with Congressmen on appropriations committees generally fare better.
For example, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo is a member of the Defense subcommittee in the House Appropriations Committee. A glance at the University’s congressional funding reveals that the Army High Performance Computing Research Center received in 1997 and 1999 $16 million and $6 million, respectively, from the Department of Defense.
Professor Vipin Kumar, director of the Army Research Center, says the $6 million will be used to maintain the center’s supercomputer, the world’s seventh largest. Professor Kumar acknowledges Representative Sabo is a strong supporter of the center and has helped get them funds.
Earmarked funds are like many other programs that the government controls: the potential to do good is enormous, but the practical applications are less than stellar. Money can be given to a project based not on merit but on political connections. This is worrisome because despite government budget surpluses, taxpayer money should only be used for projects that will benefit citizens.
It is unlikely that earmarked funds will go away. They have been an integral part of the intersection between higher education and politics in the past and will continue to be so. The best hope is that the money will be used responsibly and wisely so that vital research within higher education can continue.

Jende Huang is an editorial writer. He welcomes comments at [email protected]