Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Drives the Earmark Problem

By Phil Kerpen and Jonathan Martin

President Obama recently announced his earmark reform plan (on the same day he signed a massive earmark-stuffed omnibus sending bill) by saying: "The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions that we've already seen." Apparently, in Obama's mind, private companies are inherently suspect while government entities, funded with tax dollars, are inherently virtuous. It's an upside-down view of the world that flies in the face of the real facts about earmark abuse, and a sorry excuse for ignoring his earmark reform promise and signing the pork-laden $410 billion omnibus bill.

The process occurs daily in institutions all over the country that receive tax dollars from the cities and states in which they're located. Take for example, little old North Dakota State University--this week's NCAA tournament darling. With a mere 13,000 students, ND State spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2007 to pay a lobbying firm to ensure passage of various bills virtually ensuring cash flow back to the publicly funded school. By comparing the roughly $160,000 (reportedly) paid to the lobbying firm Lee Smith, to the $28.2 million received by way of the passed legislation, North Dakota State made a return of over 17,000%.

Great deal if you can get it. The problem is that when thousands of taxpayer-funded lobbying entities around the country get the same idea, it contributes to a complete breakdown of fiscal discipline at the federal level, and a spending system driven by lobbying influence instead of genuine national priorities. In a 2008 policy paper, Americans for Prosperity Foundation examined the scope of the problem.

Essentially our tax dollars are used to pay lobbyists to go to Congress and ask for more tax dollars taken from across the country. The coffers of universities and other publicly funded organizations are stuffed every year through the process, and there's no sign of the process slowing down in the immediate future.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2008, there were 2,300 earmarks for 920 institutions across the country. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that in 2008, transportation and water authorities spent a combined $16 million on lobbying elected officials. In today's trillion-dollar spending frenzy that may not seem like a huge amount, but when all types of wasteful earmarks are funded it's hard to get anyone to take any kind of spending discipline seriously.

Sen. Chuck Schumer recently noted that the "chattering classes" are the only people concerned with "little porky amendments." The effect of pork projects on the culture of wasteful spending in Washington is hardly little, however, and thousands of them are burdening taxpayers that will never receive one iota of benefit from them.

The most egregious examples of pork-barrel waste are earmarks for government entities--contrary to Obama's claim that the real problem is on the private side. In the omnibus bill, we all heard about the $1.8 million for Swine Odor Research--that was at Iowa State University. We heard about Schumer's Woody Biomass project--that was at the State University of New York. There was the Catfish Genomics research at Auburn. Sugarbeet Research at the Michigan State University. And of course there's the Totally Teen Zone run by the City of Albany, Ga.

Earmarks completely bypass state and federal agencies normally responsible for conducting competitive bidding and merit-based competition for funding. The abuse of the federal appropriations process by taxpayer-funded entities is no better than private institutions; it's worse. Our own tax dollars are being used against our interests and without our permission. Until we take that problem head on, no earmark reform will stand a chance of succeeding.

Mr. Kerpen is director of policy and Mr. Martin is a policy analyst for Americans for Prosperity Foundation.