Colleges and Universities Reap an Earmark Bonanza, Thanks to Congress

Last Updated May 20, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

Some of the largest beneficiaries of federal "earmarks" are colleges and universities. They can receive money to do research for the government, and some schools even have whole centers and institutes funded through this practice. Over the last few years these schools, both state and private, have invested in lobbyists to help them get those earmarks. A recent analysis showed that in 2010 these earmarks totaled about $2 billion.

While $2 billion doesn't seem like much in an almost $3 trillion budget, it illustrates the magnitude of the earmark issue. The House leadership moved last year to ban earmarks that would benefit for-profit companies or organizations. If that plan goes through -- and it won't have any effect for a while, at least -- educational earmarks will only grow more popular. Such money still flows to home states and districts to hire people at the schools. This may not be as efficient as giving the funds to a company, but it's still pork.

Earmarks are a bane because they're so often used to sidestep the federal budget process. Many people justify the practice as a way to create jobs in a district with federal money, and who can be against that? The problem is that the money should be going to something the government needs or wants rather then what individual politicians think best.

The Democratic ban on for-profit earmarks is just window dressing for now, as it would only apply once a budget is drawn up, and it currently looks like there won't be a budget this year. The Republicans did not agree to the plan, ostensibly preferring a ban on all earmarks. (In reality, Republican lawmakers use earmarks pretty much as often as their Democratic counterparts do.)

At a time when the federal government is running deficits of more than $1 trillion, this kind of spending needs to be limited. It won't be, of course, so if you happen to be running a university, you're probably best off putting some funds into lobbying, as it will most likely be returned to you with interest courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

Earmarks are when a legislator adds money to the budget for a specific task or entity. Normally these are for things not requested in the budget or additional funding beyond what the Executive Branch requested. Because Congress writes the budget they can do this and without a line item veto there is nothing President Obama or his Secretaries can do to stop them. The only actual way they can prevent earmarks is by not executing the money which means that it just sits there and cannot be used for higher priorities.
  • Matthew Potter

    Matthew Potter is a resident of Huntsville, Ala., where he works supporting U.S. Army aviation programs. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he began work as a defense contractor in Washington D.C. specializing in program management and budget development and execution. In the last 15 years Matthew has worked for several companies, large and small, involved in all aspects of government contracting and procurement. He holds two degrees in history as well as studying at the Defense Acquisition University. He has written for Seeking Alpha and at his own website,