Anatomy of an Earmark

I was fooling around with a great web page run by the Sunlight Foundation linking earmarks from a recent Health and Human Services bill to Google maps.  Here are some of the earmarks in the Phoenix area:

  1. $ 400,000 -- Midwestern University for a rural postgraduate educational program at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center
  2. $ 150,000 -- St. Joseph's Hospital for facilities and equipment for its mobile maternity outreach program
  3. $ 750,000 -- Translational Genomics Research Institute for facilities and equipment
  4. $ 250,000 --  Arizona State University Institute of Civil Rights, for dropout prevention and other education projects
  5. $ 125,000 --  Mesa Community College for nursing recertification curriculum
  6. $ 175,000 --  Mesa Community College for the Enfermeras En Escalera program
  7. $ 200,000 -- Marc Center for job training for adults with disabilities
  8. $ 500,000 -- Scottsdale Healthcare for an electronic medical records system
  9. $ 100,000 -- Arizona Dental Foundation to provide dental services to low-income residents of Arizona

Note that this is just from one narrowly focused bill and for one single metropolitan area.  For this one post, I will not be a libertarian and wonder why the government is spending money on some of this crap.  Instead, for one post, I will be a good little technocrat and assume that the government should be doing all these things and criticize the process.

If I were a technocrat, I would argue that Congress already funds an ENORMOUS beauracracy to route federal money to theoretically the most productive spots.  I mean, that's the whole technocratic argument for all this government spending, isn't it?  That the government run by experts in the field can top-down allocate resources better than some bottom up market process?

Ideally, in any budgeting process, you look at your goals for a pool of money - say to cure breast cancer or to provide worker retraining, and you rank projects and allocations against this goal.  I believe this to be an impossible task for a variety of reasons, some of which are described here.  But even if you buy into this theory of technocratic fascism, you STILL have to be appalled by these earmarks.  Because each and every one are an override of any kind of prioritization and thoughtfullness that might exist in the budgeting process.

Take #9.  So the government has a goal of providing dental services to low-income people.  Fine.  Then shouldn't it take its dental services budget and allocate it on the best cost per patient served basis?  Does the Arizona Dental Foundation fit into this picture?  I bet no one in Congress knows.  In fact, I bet it DOESN'T fit this efficient allocation of funds criteria, because otherwise someone in Congress wouldn't have overrrided the funding process to push $100,000 their way in an earmark.  And even if this is a non-profit, shouldn't this kind of thing be bid on -- say ask for proposals of who can do the most with $100,000?

Some of these others are pretty obscure, and say something in and of themselves about the reach of the federal government these days.  But take #3.  Is the Translational Genomics Research Institute the best place to spend 3/4 million to get the most bang for our health research dollars?  No one probably knows, but what I can tell you is that it is the darling of our local political establishment (just read its history, all about political namedropping, new facilities, and whoring for taxpayer funds without mention of any actual research).  It has political figures such as our current governor on the board, so you might be able to guess how they got their earmark.

Or look at #8.  Scottsdale Healthcare is a private company, though a not-for-profit.  It is a large provider of private, paid medical services in our area.  It, out of all of its competitors in town, both non-profits and for-profits, was chosen by Congress to get its medical records system upgraded by the US taxpayers, why?

  • http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/blog/13 Bill Allison

    Just a thought -- check the lobbying records of these groups. Here's the entry for Scottsdale Healthcare, for example:

    http://sopr.senate.gov/cgi-win/m_opr_viewer.exe?DoFn=3&CLI=SCOTTSDALE%20HEALTHCARE&CLIQUAL==

  • Anon

    As an academic, I also am opposed to earmarks. Peer-review of proposals, such as through NSF and NIH are already, in my opinion, far from optimal, even according to these agencies own definition. Earmarks just make the process even less objective, and more politicized.

    Unfortunately, these days more and more funding is available through earmarks rather through the NSF.

  • http://ntsike.tripod.com/ AntZ

    It appears that someone made commitments in the community and here are payback projects as they are probably some kind if effort on behalf of an elected Federal representative to take care of their own back yards. If this is multiplied by the favors owed by legislators nationwide then we understand why our deficient is so huge, despite the war effort.

    That is why I’ve always contended we have no financial crisis in this country that responsible financial management won’t solve. Our problem is there is no will and where there is no will, there will be no way. We are to dumbded down as a society to hold elected officials accountable for their behaviors.

    Excuses are acceptable and the politicians are masters at diverting the issues and using sound bites. Research is a good thing but when a name is attached to the research it definitely is an earmark or better said a gift at the taxpayer’s expense.