Once-banned practice of funding hometown projects proves irresistible to lawmakers
- 29 DEC 2022
- 2:20 PM
- BYJEFFREY MERVIS
Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO) toured Missouri State University’s aging science building with MSU President Clif Smart (right) before earmarking $85 million to renovate it. KEVIN WHITE/MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY
The $1.7 trillion spending package that Congress passed on 23 December does more than fund the entire U.S. government in 2023. Senators and members of the House of Representatives from both parties also used it to funnel $15 billion to 7200 projects in their districts that federal funding agencies never requested. The projects include new research facilities and academic programs at hundreds of public colleges and universities.
That spending signals the robust resurgence of earmarks, the sometimes controversial—and until recently banned—practice in which legislators use their constitutional authority over federal spending to benefit their constituents. The dollar amount and number of earmarks rose by half over this year, according to one count by The New York Times. The 2023 total also tops levels seen before Congress banned the practice in 2010 after some notorious earmarks drew widespread ridicule—and figured in the conviction of one lawmaker for accepting bribes.
However, in early 2021 Congress removed the ban starting with the upcoming 2022 fiscal year. Proponents argue that such directed funding addresses local and state needs, increases support for must-pass spending bills, and serves as a counterweight to the spending priorities of the executive branch.
Most earmarks do not relate to science; they typically fund transportation upgrades, new housing, or other forms of regional economic development. Still, research-related earmarks make many scientists uncomfortable. One complaint is that those earmarks don’t go through the merit-based competition used to allocate most federal research dollars. Science advocates also worry the growth in earmarks might divert money from the pot available for competitively awarded grants.
Legislators acknowledge that the earmarking process can appear arbitrary. But even those who favor more funding for competitive research also seek earmarks, seeing them as an additional mechanism for increasing federal support for research.
“If there were a perfect science of how to go about [funding research], we would probably embrace that,” says retiring Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), outgoing chair of the House science committee. “But there is not. And so we try to use every opportunity we have to make sure that the importance of research is recognized.” Johnson’s earmarks for 2023 include $2 million for Texas Tech University’s Health Sciences Center in her Dallas district.
There’s little research on how the outcomes of science-related earmarks compare with those produced by competitive awards. But a recent study of projects that legislators inserted into one Department of Energy program to fund hydrogen research found they generated as many publications and patents as projects chosen via merit review.
Clif Smart, president of Missouri State University (MSU), is one academic who doesn’t see any downside to earmarks. The former teachers’ college has a minuscule research portfolio—it ranked 321st among U.S. universities in 2021, according to data from the National Science Foundation—but has loftier ambitions. And when MSU needed a new science building, Smart turned to the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Roy Blunt, who delivered $85 million in earmarks.
“Our science classrooms and labs are in buildings that are 50, 70, and 90 years old and that require more than $100 million to bring them up to today’s standards,” Smart says. “We would not have been able to do that without the directed spending that Senator Blunt championed for us.”
Blunt, whose long tenure on the Senate appropriations committee has given him considerable influence, inserted earmarks worth more than $300 million into each of the last two federal spending bills. Those totals make him one of the top five earmarkers in Congress.
If each of the 535 members of Congress were as proficient with earmarks as Blunt, the 2023 tally would have topped $160 billion. That’s twice what nondefense agencies now spend annually on science. But Smart says the re-emergence of earmarks is not his concern.
“There probably should be some limits or constraints,” he says. “But I’ll let people smarter than me worry about what the caps ought to be. We’ve got 24,000 students [at MSU], 2500 of whom are majoring in science and another 8000 of whom take [science] classes. … My responsibility is making sure they have adequate facilities.”
In reinstating earmarks last year, the Democrats who controlled Congress adopted rules designed to prevent the worst abuses. Members had to disclose every earmark they requested, and they couldn’t fund for-profit entities or projects that would benefit them directly. A few legislators have opted for even greater transparency, getting input from community leaders on what earmarks they should request. House members were also limited to 10 requests, although this year the cap was raised to 15.
Lawmakers only insert earmarks into a tiny fraction of the thousands of accounts that fund government activities, and few of those accounts fund research. Even so, earmarks have become a significant presence at one science agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This year, earmarks comprise more than half of the additional $103 million the agency received for its in-house research account and nearly one-quarter of NIST’s overall budget of $1.6 billion.
Blunt and several other prolific earmarkers who didn’t run for reelection last month are going out with a bang. The reigning king, Senator Richard Shelby (R–AL), routed $762 million to his home state in the 2023 spending bill. Shelby also pioneered the concept of faculty endowments, sending a total of $100 million to the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, over the past 2 years. Another departing champion, Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT), steered $212 million to his state, including a $30 million faculty endowment for the Honors College at the University of Vermont.
Blunt’s 2023 total includes $61 million for research facilities at the state’s flagship University of Missouri, Columbia, and $20 million for an innovation center at its Rolla campus. He has also funneled $6 million to MSU for an endowment to attract and retain science faculty.
MSU will miss Blunt’s presence in Washington, D.C., Smart says. “My guess is that we will get substantially fewer directed expenditures,” he predicts, noting that Missouri’s two senators, including Blunt’s successor, oppose the practice on the grounds that it wastes precious government resources.
But relatively few members of Congress have taken such a stance. House Republicans recently rejected by a three-to-one margin a proposal to reinstate the earmark ban when they assume control next week.
In Missouri, meanwhile, Blunt’s generosity to MSU won’t be forgotten. The current science building is named for Allen Temple, a pioneer in communications technology in the early 20th century who was chair of the school’s science department for 40 years. This month, the school’s trustees renamed the new facility Roy Blunt Hall. A plaque hanging in the building’s new atrium will commemorate Temple’s long service to the university.
RELEVANT TAGS:FUNDINGSCIENCE AND POLICY
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Jeff Mervis tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.