Today we’re talking earmarks. Yes- earmarks in Congress. There has been an 8 year moratorium on these pet projects, but they are making headlines again as the House of Representatives Democrat leadership appears eager to bring them back when they take majority beginning in 2019.
First let’s start off with what earmarks are. The Congressional Research Service specifically defines earmarks as “provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities.
So why did earmarks get the boot? According to roll call, “In 2005, a $223 million earmark to fund the construction of a bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, to the tiny island of Gravina, Alaska, captured national attention. The earmark, which was included in a bill to provide funding for reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina, rightfully drew scorn and ridicule from across the country. In 2007, Congress stripped the earmark.
Opponents of earmarks, however, weren’t satisfied with simply righting this wrong, they used the Bridge to Nowhere as a poster child for the supposed wasteful nature of the earmark process, and when Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they eliminated earmarks altogether — all in the name of good government.”
According to the concord coalition, “In the context of the federal budget, earmarks have been relatively small. They historically accounted for less than $20 billion a year -- that would be about 1.7 percent of discretionary spending and 0.5 percent of total federal spending in the previous fiscal year.”
So if it’s really a small percentage of the budget, why are earmarks so controversial? Well those in favor of banning the earmarks believe that it reduces perceived or actual corruption, and leaders at the time saw it as an easy way to cut spending. Those who believe the ban should be lifted can point to the fact that eliminating the earmarks has made absolutely no dent in reducing the nation’s deficit. They also argue that through the elimination of earmarks, dollars go to the federal agencies to be spent- so in essence the same dollars are being spent- just by bureaucrats instead of the elected officials that the public elected to represent them.
Okay- so now that you have that background- here’s how it fits into our edu:nation world.
Often times, people think of earmarks in terms of when it comes to spending for projects like roads, bridges, parking garages, and military weapons systems. This sounds a lot like the word “infrastructure”
Think about how much technology has changed since 2011- now when we hear the word infrastructure we think of connectivity. Think about how what seems to be a drop in the bucket for the federal government could help with the homework gap and access for our students. According to EducationSuperHighway, there are 1.9 million student in 62 school districts that still lack access to the FCC’s 100 kbps recommendation and 1,356 schools that still need fiber. There has been great strides in this area- but think how certain districts could benefit from an earmark to assist with technology initiatives.
Earmarks aren’t only for K12. Earmarks have played a large part in research initiatives in the higher education space. According to the New York Times, “In 2007, Congress set aside a record $2.3 billion in pet projects for colleges and universities for research. In fact, a total of 2,306 earmarks were appropriated for higher education. The largest of the earmarks went to the University of South Alabama, which received $30 million for an engineering and science center.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education did a survey on Earmarks in 2007 which gave way to the fact that earmarks “are particularly controversial in higher education because they bypass the normal route for financing peer-reviewed scientific research. Typically, research proposals submitted to government entities like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are selected after intensive reviews by scientific panels and are based on broad national priorities.” Some professors believe that earmarks create a “who you know” playing field rather than one based strictly on research.
Be that as it may, there are many institutions of higher education that could use the dollars well, along with districts across the country trying to find ways to increase access and equity for students. Of course, anyone receiving these dollars should be held to high accountability standards.
This is by no means a done deal. Even if the House votes to bring earmarks back- Republicans still control the Senate. If this scenario happens- basically any bill that had an earmark would likely go to conference in the Republicans voted a bill down for this reason. That could get very messy- but then again in D.C. - what isn’t?
I’ll keep you posted next year after the session begins- as always, it’s about to get interesting.
What do you think? Would earmarks be good for education? Leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for listening- I’ll see you next week for the third episode of Edu:nation - where I’ll be interviewing Chris Draper of Trokt on improvements to special education.