Earmark Ban Harms Small Colleges, Universities

A congressional ban on earmarks favors large research universities to the detriment of smaller colleges and universities.

“For small institutions,” earmarks are “one of the ways that they can get their foot in the door,” said Sean Kelly, professor of political science at California State University Channel Islands, in a Wednesday interview with The Christian Post.

An earmark is when a member of Congress designates a particular use, typically in their district, for certain funds that have been appropriated. The current Congress has placed a moratorium on the use of earmarks. The ban was seen as a strike against government corruption and excessive spending.

The ban does not save money, however, but changes who decides how the money is spent. Generally, government bureaucracies are left with the responsibility. When it comes to research money for universities, the decision is usually left to a competitive grant process, such as the National Science Foundation program.

Kelly is the coauthor, with Professor Scott Frisch, of Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy, which argues that earmarks are consistent with the intent of the founding fathers of the United States.

“In the competitive grant process, there are rich institutions and there are poor institutions and the rich institutions tend to win every single time,” Kelly said. “Funding agencies don't typically take [small university] proposals very seriously.”

Top research universities have a lot of resources at their disposal, such as grant writers, to help them win grants.

“When small institutions go into a competitive grant process with, say, University of California (UC),” the small institutions are “probably going to lose,” Kelly argued. “The faculty at UC will claim it is because they are superior. The fact of the matter is, that's not necessarily the case.”

Kelly believes the competitive grant process is insular. “In NSF, they are looking at each other’s research.” Outsiders have difficulty “even if they have a really great idea.”

Congressional earmarks are “an opportunity for members of Congress to make that call and say, (for instance), 'there is a great idea at CSU Channel Islands and we should be making an investment in that.'”

The earmark ban would be frowned upon by the founders, Kelly argued, because it places more power in the hands of the executive branch, and the founders preferred a weak executive.