the limits of formal experimentation | Main | this blog turns three

January 06, 2006

the earmarking/lobbying connection

Byron York in today's New York Times:

if Congress passes, as it does hundreds of times each year, a spending measure that affects a specific business, it attracts the intense interest of that business, which has a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to achieve a favorable result. A number of reformers believe there's no way to clean up lobbying without cutting down on those so-called earmarks, and that's a far bigger problem than lobbying reform.

Earmarking is very pervasive and a very bad thing. Take a small federal program that I happen to know about, the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE, pronounced "fipsee"). Congress appropriated $157.2 million for FIPSE in fiscal year 2005, of which $135 million was then earmarked for specific projects at colleges and universities favored by Members of Congress. For instance, Alaska Christian College, with 37 total students, receives around $400,000 a year in earmarked FIPSE funds. As a result, there is no merit-based competition, and there is no accountability. The people who run the program in the Department of Education simply mail checks to fund projects, whatever their merits. They have no leverage to demand rigorous evaluation or results.

I know something about FIPSE, but I suspect that the earmarking problem is infinitely worse in big-ticket programs like Defense procurement. Byron York is right to link lobbying scandals to earmarking: it pays to influence a Congress that doles out pork. However, three questions:

1. Which causes which? Does Congress earmark because of lobbying pressure and money from special interests, or do special interests employ lobbyists because Congress earmarks?

2. Which problem is easier to fix? York thinks that it is impossible to restrain lobbyists, so we should make them less important by reducing earmarks. I could make precisely the opposite case--that campaign finance reform and ethics rules are easier goals than budget reform.

3. To what extent are earmarking and high-priced lobbying linked? After all, FIPSE grants go to colleges and universities. These institutions employ lobbyists (exercising their right to petition the government). I would be surprised, however, if they make big campaign contributions or buy political access at a high price. Presumably, Members of Congress earmark funds for their hometown colleges, not to obtain campaign funds, but to gain local goodwill, to feel important, and to support institutions that they genuinely like. Taking the money out of politics woulndn't change those incentives.

Posted by peterlevine at January 6, 2006 12:38 PM

Comments

I think the bulk of earmarks are just a way to "bring home the bacon", and not specifically linked to pay-for-play lobbying. The exception is jiggling with the tax code and regulatory reform, though these are not strictly speaking "earmarks".

The only way to get rid of earmarks is to have someone in some position of power who has some other spending priority that is deemed more important. Reagan vetoed earmarks to punish Democrats, but also to keep room for his tax cuts without exploding the deficit. Clinton and Gingrich clamped down on earmarks because of political pressure and to make room for their own spending priorities: health care for Clinton, tax cuts for Gingrich.

Today, there is no one in power who has some other spending priority that can trump pork. The Republican Congress also doesn't have any interest in taking deficit reduction seriously.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 6, 2006 01:43 PM

(I find Nick's analysis very persuasive.)

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 6, 2006 01:49 PM

That's right on. Earmarks are so popular because it is a convenient way to provide constituent service. That's why it's going to take a rules change.

Posted by: Hellmut Lotz [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 7, 2006 02:26 PM

From Steven Bodin, via email:

Thanks for the link to my story. A comment -- as I worked on that story, people of all political stripes argued pursuasively that a heterogeneous political environment is the best guarantee against pork. Any time one party controls too much of a system, the opposition loses its ability to cut pork, either out of a sense of good government or for spite.

I don't know what would increase the diversity of voices in Washington, but I suspect that deeper electoral reforms (get rid of public support for political parties, perhaps?) would help a lot.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 9, 2006 01:58 PM

Post a comment

This blog is under attack from comment spammers, who are causing a problem for the server. I believe I can block them by upgrading to a recent version of MoveableType. However, I do not have time to do that until late December. Therefore, I have temporarily disabled comments. Please feel free to email me feedback at plevine@umd.edu.

Site Meter