The House Appropriations Committee has approved more than $272 million in funding through earmarks that would go to projects at 228 colleges and universities, according to an analysis conducted by Inside Higher Ed.
The earmarks span seven of the 12 bills the Appropriations Committee has introduced to fund federal departments and agencies for fiscal year 2022 (the other five bills either don't have earmarks at all or have none related to higher education). Nearly $186 million of the earmark funding is a part of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies bill, which was approved by the committee last week and lays out Congress’s initial appropriations for higher education.
Earmarks specifically for higher education institutions are also contained in the bills for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies; Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies; Financial Services and General Government; Homeland Security; Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
After a 10-year moratorium, Democratic leadership of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees announced earlier this year that they would accept requests from lawmakers for “community project funding” in the House and “congressionally directed spending” in the Senate. They also introduced several reforms to curb the abuse that led to the downfall of earmark spending: all the requests must be available online, along with a disclosure stating the lawmaker has no financial interest in the project; the overall funding is limited to no more than 1 percent of discretionary spending; and for-profit entities cannot receive any of the funding.
One argument in favor of the earmarking process is that it’s intended to help promote bipartisanship. If members have a stake in the legislation because it includes funding that would directly benefit their constituents, it may be more likely to garner support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Over all, requests for colleges and universities in the approved bills came from 178 members -- 126 Democrats and 52 Republicans. Fifty-six members had more than one of their requests included, with Democratic representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina, Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Colin Allred of Texas each having four requests for institutions as part of the bills.
Still, that doesn’t mean the legislation is guaranteed to have the votes from Republicans, said Jonathan Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. The 25 votes against the Labor, HHS and Education bill in the Appropriations Committee all came from Republicans, even though 43 Republicans had earmarks for colleges and universities included in it.
“It seems like a lot of Republicans are perfectly willing to make requests for project funding, but they won't necessarily take the step in favor of voting for the bills,” Fansmith said.
There are a variety of funding requests for colleges and universities in terms of location, cost, type of project and type of institution. By far, the most expensive earmark for an institution across the seven bills is $20 million for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to assist in construction and operation of a National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture. The request was made by Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, and is a part of the agriculture appropriations bill.
That project funding level is very much an outlier -- the median amount that has been allocated to institutions through the earmarking process is $900,000. North Carolina State University would receive $350,000 for computer science professional development, Salt Lake Community College would receive $500,000 for a campus internship program, Baylor University would receive $1 million for a cybersecurity initiative and the purchase of information technology, and Benedict College would receive $2 million for workforce development activities.
“These are not big sums of money,” Fansmith said. “They are not necessarily big sums of money even within an institution's operating budget, but it's money that institutions wouldn't be able to raise in other ways that they're using to serve their communities, support their students and expand their offerings.”
Many of the projects are related to facilities and equipment upgrades, curriculum and program development, and workforce initiatives. The projects earmarked include an entrepreneurship program and center at Harris-Stowe State University, an aviation program at Cape Cod Community College, a basic needs project at Los Angeles City College, a prison education program at New York University, and mental health services at Georgia State University (a complete list of community project funding items in the Labor, HHS and Education bill can be found here).
Fansmith said he thinks the earmarks for institutions that made it into the bills are reasonable and an admirable set of projects. But Matthew Dickerson, director of the federal budget center at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, questioned whether the earmarking process is the best way to develop these types of programs.
“It simply isn’t fair or efficient for taxes to be taken from one community only to be redistributed somewhere else by the politicians in D.C.,” Dickerson said. “Instead of funding parochial special-interest projects with limited impact, the federal government should focus its attention on truly national priorities while lifting barriers to investment from the private sector as well as state and local governments.”
None of the earmarks are close to being finalized -- the appropriations bills still have to pass both chambers of Congress and be signed by President Biden. But the process may have already accomplished what the return of earmarks was, in part, intended to do.
“At the very least, they have created an avenue for both parties to have some stake in the outcomes of those bills, which is all for the good,” Fansmith said.