Earmark ban a strain on higher ed

More than a year after earmarks were driven out of Congress, colleges and universities are feeling the strain of lost federal funding and warning lawmakers to think twice about making the ban permanent.

Higher education was one of the beneficiaries of earmarks, which lawmakers inserted into spending bills to direct federal cash to their districts. Lawmakers often used the practice to secure funding for research parks, campus facilities and other projects tied to higher education.

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Earmarks became synonymous with pork-barrel spending thanks in part to projects like the much-derided “bridge to nowhere” that many viewed as wasteful. Responding to public pressure, both chambers of Congress instituted informal moratoriums on earmarks last year.

With earmarks off the table, colleges and universities have been forced to find other ways to pay for projects through grants and private funding. Some smaller institutions say they are suffering because the competition for grants is so fierce.

“Earmarks have become a dirty word, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said GolinHarris lobbyist Mike Fulton, who has represented a number of colleges and universities.

Many higher-education institutions did not return phone calls or declined to comment for this article. One university official contacted by The Hill said schools are wary of being associated with earmarks, given their reputation. 

“I think a lot of universities believe that open and honest competition is the way universities should be able to earn their resources. Institutions have this idea that asking for earmarks might seem contradictory to the idea of open and honest competition. Not all universities feel that way, but I think some do,” the official said.

“The other reason is I think there’s been a lot of negative discussion about earmarks that don’t look like they’re a good use of federal resources, and people are concerned with being associated with that.”

Another community college employee said the loss of earmark funding has meant pulling funds from other money pools.

Helene Whitaker, vice president for administrative affairs for Northampton Community College, said her school has had to reallocate funds normally used for scholarships.

“The earmarks ban alone hasn’t resulted in higher tuition, but combined with continuing reductions in state and local funding and no capital dollars at all from the state, tuition will need to be raised, perhaps substantially, and that means fewer students can afford to attend,” Whitaker told The Hill.

Schools have also been squeezed by a huge cut to the Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). The Fund, which totaled more than $159.4 million in 2010, was slashed to $19.6 million in 2011, according to Robert Moran, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association for State Colleges and Universities.

The Education Department pool covers projects that “promise to be models for improving the quality of postsecondary education and increasing student access,” the department’s website states. More than $101 million of the funding in 2010 came from earmarks. 

“In many other earmark programs, the research dollars began flowing [instead] in a competitive nature … [FIPSE] was one account where the money just disappeared,” Moran said.

The amount of money that was earmarked for the higher education community before the moratorium is not easy to track, according to Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. 

Ellis said it was always hard for his organization to keep tabs on where earmarks were going.

“Congress has never been very good about disclosing exactly who the beneficiary is, so I always knew the number we came up with when we did our university and college search was low,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the problem with earmarks is the process, not necessarily the projects that are funded, though he argued research and defense dollars should always be doled out through competitions. 

“Research is where we absolutely should not be doing earmarks. We can evaluate this, and it’s something that is routinely done in the academic community,” Ellis said.

Moran said not all schools that need federal funding could thrive in a competitive grant system. Smaller, less prominent institutions have a difficult time beating out the heavyweight schools.

“[Earmarks are] beneficial for my institutions who may not have a leg up, may not have a full staff to put together the best or most elaborate research program, but have the best application submitted,” Moran added.

This shift away from earmarks has forced schools to get creative — finding the funds and grants they may not have looked at before and creating better relationships with their members of Congress.

“Clearly, if a member puts an earmark in for a project, they have a decent relationship,” Moran said.

“But I think the notion that the member can still be helpful, and how do I get my member to be helpful, means you have to maintain and strengthen the relationships.”

Lobbyists for colleges and universities have also switched gears, Fulton said.

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GolinHarris has encouraged higher-education clients to apply for funding in coalitions to up their chances, he said. The firm has “also helped clients be nominated and be named to federal advisory committees” so clients could offer their own expertise and learn how the agency works.

The loss of earmarks could become the new normal for schools if a new proposal from Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) moves through Congress.

The Toomey-McCaskill bill creates a point of order in the Senate against earmarks and allows any senator to raise an objection to a bill that contains earmarks. Sixty-seven votes would be needed to override the objection. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is also a co-sponsor on the legislation.

Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) came out against the legislation, arguing that colleges and universities need “the proper investment” to make the country more competitive.

“If their primary goal is to cut the deficit, they should be looking at the billions we spend each year in tax breaks for billionaires and big corporations, not critical funds for research that can help put people back to work,” Sutton told The Hill.

Moran said a permanent earmark ban would be OK with his members so long as the funding is provided in other ways.

“As long as the accounts where the earmarks have been [are there] and we maintain a competitive grant funding process, then that’s sufficient, “ he said.

Ellis said the ban is a good thing to prevent people from cheating the system.

“From our perspective, if we set up the right systems, those worthwhile projects would all move forward,” Ellis said.

“If you really are thinking about, ‘We want to give funding to the highest and best science,’ why wouldn’t we do this in competition?”

Erik Wasson contributed.