Federal earmarks may be returning. According to reporting in Axios and other sources, over the weekend, the House Appropriations Committee is planning to restore a new version of congressional earmarks, which would give lawmakers the power to designate and direct spending to their districts to pay for special projects as part of approved appropriations bills.

Historically condemned by critics as “wasteful, pork-barrel, pet projects,” earmarks have been lauded by proponents as “congressionally designated appropriations” that properly redirect spending decisions from D.C. bureaucrats to elected officials and apply the grease that’s sometimes necessary to break legislative gridlock and get things done in Congress. Even Donald Trump, Mr. “Drain-the-swamp himself, mused to lawmakers in one of his many transactional moments, “Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a form of earmarks.”

A series of embarrassing scandals (remember the “Bridge to Nowhere”) led to federal earmarks being banned back in 2011. Led by the Tea Party, but with some bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, the earmark ban has stood for a decade, despite occasional talk of reviving it. Advocates of the moratorium like to claim it has brought government spending under better control, when it fact it only ever accounted for a tiny fraction of the federal budget. (In 2011, 130 billion dollars were earmarked out of a 2.6 trillion dollar budget.)

Now with Democrats in control of the House and ever so narrowly in the Senate, earmarks may be poised for a comeback, albeit in revised form, as part of a strategy to cut more deals and get big legislation passed.

And if earmarks do officially return, it could mean billions in funding for universities and colleges for a host of programs and projects near and dear to individual institutions’ hearts.

The House Proposal

Under the proposal presented to the Democratic caucus last Friday by House Appropriations Committee chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the new earmarking process would be capped at one percent of all federal discretionary spending, which now totals about 1.4 trillion dollars.

It would come with several other restrictions and safeguards meant to increase transparency and oversight. For example,

  • Each House member would be limited to a maximum of 10 requests.
  • Requests and their justifications would have to be made public.
  • For-profit institutions would no longer be eligible for funding.
  • Members would have to provide evidence of community support.
  • Members would also have to certify that neither they nor their immediate family has a financial interest in the project.

What Happens Next

Just because House Democrats have opted to bring back earmarks does not assure their return. The Senate has not yet decided whether to go along with the idea or how it would do so. Also unclear is how Republicans in both chambers would deal with existing party rules barring them from participating in the process.

The House Freedom Caucus has already come out against a return to earmarking. But senior Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and House Rules ranking member Tom Cole from Oklahoma both back a return under certain conditions. “As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I believe there is a time and a place for congressionally directed appropriations that are guided by a set of specific parameters,” Cole told Axios in a statement.

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a leading foe of earmarks, made her continuing objection clear in a recent statement:

 “During my short time in the Senate, Congress has never needed to revert back to individual earmarks, so why now? This is nothing short of a belated Valentine to Washington special interests and lobbyists who have been chomping at the bit for this pork-making process to return. “Washington prioritizing politicians over struggling Americans is just the swamp returning to its normal habitat. It’s a disgrace. There’s simply no reason to go back to the old, wasteful and detrimental ways of earmarks. We need to permanently ban this bad practice—even if it makes some folks squeal.”

Still, there is optimism that some form of earmarking may return. “We are in good faith negotiations with the House and my Senate colleagues to bring back congressionally directed spending in a transparent and responsible way, and those discussions are ongoing,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement, quoted in Roll Call. “I believe there is bipartisan support to restore the power of the purse to Congress and I am continuing to work toward that goal.”

Higher Education Stands to Gain

The fact is that while elected officials often publicly shake their finger at earmarks in disapproval, they privately extend their palm to accept them on behalf of their constituents. It’s s kind of “rejecting the cake, but eating it too” response.

Higher Education has shown a similar mixed-message ambivalence. Organizations like the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) have criticized earmarking because it bypasses the peer-review process in the awarding of research grants. For example, AAU claimed it “supports the principle that merit-reviewed competition is the best method of ensuring the quality and cost-effectiveness of federally sponsored research. AAU has always expressed concern that congressional or administration earmarking of federal research funds may reduce the capacity of federal agencies to support the most promising research and thereby impair the quality of our national research program.”

Nonetheless, many of AAU’s member institutions raked in millions in earmarked research dollars, prior to the ban. And if directed spending returns, expect most colleges and universities to join in a push for their share of that pie. And it’s a good-sized pie.

An Inside Higher Education analysis found that in the 2010 fiscal year, 875 higher ed institutions received close to $2 billion in grants from individual members of Congress. If the same proportion were to be allocated now, it would total hundreds of millions more.

Most of earmarked funds in the past supported academic research, particularly the construction of new research facilities, but if earmarking is restored, institutions are likely to lobby for other kinds of projects as well.

  • Funding for starting up new academic programs would be high on some lists.
  • So too would be acquisition of both technology and development of expertise to further distance learning.
  • Money to help commercialize intellectual property was a popular target in the heyday of earmarking. It’s likely to be so again.
  • And earmarking has always been a way for less prestigious institutions to get a larger share of research support in the health and physical sciences. Now, in the age of the pandemic, with calls for basic and clinical research intensifying, that push will be even stronger.

Although higher education leaders have always felt some unease about being too public in their quest for earmarks, it’s a discomfort we can expect will be overcome with little difficulty. Should a new version of federal earmarks return, higher education will be one of the main beneficiaries, just as it has been in the past.


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