In most negotiations, each party makes an offer and then the sides come to an agreement somewhere between the two figures. The final agreed upon amount will vary, but it is generally safe to say that the figure will be no lower than the bottom figure and no higher than the top one.
That is of course, unless the negotiation involves the U. S. Congress.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives and Senate unveiled their compromise consolidated appropriations bill—legislation that will set federal spending levels for most agencies for the rest of the 2010 fiscal year. Contained within this bill are all the funding levels for the Department of Education, ranging from Title I to money for the administration of Student Financial Assistance.
Also within the bill is money for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), a program that began as a way to administer competitive grants for innovative projects, but has lately turned into a mechanism for legislators to provide millions of dollars in pork projects to schools and organizations in their districts or states.
This year, Congress allocated $101.5 million on FIPSE pork projects, a little over $10 million more than the $91.2 million provided last year. By contrast, the competitive grant portion of FIPSE, the one that funds real reform opportunities and requires recipients to document results, received just $28.8 million, a decrease of $1.8 million for last year’s $30.6 million allocation. It also runs directly counter to requests by the Obama administration to phase out the earmarks entirely and provide $34.8 million for the competitive program.
These 264 projects range from $13.6 million for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate in Boston, Mass. to $50,000 for Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss. There are 15 projects for $750,000 or more and they are allocated for a wide variety of projects covering vague topics like “purchases for equipment” and more explicit aims, such as $500,000 for Seattle University’s Fostering Scholars Program. (You can see some of the most outrageous projects here and here.)
What is really interesting about the FIPSE earmarks is the decisions made when the members from both chambers had to negotiate a conference agreement that combined the 110 pork projects from the Senate with the 173 from the House.
The result is not pretty from a taxpayer standpoint. Of the 271 projects suggested by both chambers of Congress (12 were funded in both bills), all but seven—two from the Senate and five from the House—received awards. In other words, rather than trying to shrink the amount of pork being spent, the negotiators simply lumped the two bills together, making minimal sacrifices along the way. The chart below shows the unfortunate few projects that will not be feeding from the trough this fiscal year:
The final agreement largely makes up for these savings in the way it allocated funds for projects that were included in both bills but were slated to receive different amounts. Among the 12 projects included in both pieces of legislation, 10 had allocations that were not the same. In normal negotiations, this would set up a situation whereby the two sides would need to come to an agreement over whether to choose a final figure that was at the lower or higher amount, or somewhere in between. But rather than coming to an agreement, seven of those projects received funding amounts that were greater than the initial number proposed in either chamber. (The other three projects received the higher allocation suggested.)
The table below shows the House, Senate, and Conference report allocations for the 10 projects that were included in both bills but at different funding levels:
This produces some weird results. For example, the Senate provided $1 million for the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the Senate, a project that received a $12.6 million allocation in the House. Naturally, it’s final funding level is $13.6 million, a straight addition of the two amounts. Similarly, Edmonds Community College, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Pulaski Technical College all will receive funding equal to the sum of their two funding amounts.
Not to be outdone, there are six other projects that were only funded in one bill, yet somehow ended up with more money in the conference agreement. Two of these projects were explicitly targeted at veterans, which may explain the increase, while others deal with rural entrepreneurship or public service. Unfortunately, the complete opacity surrounding the FIPSE process makes it impossible to know why these projects suddenly deserved $850,000 in additional federal dollars.
The table below shows the initial and conference allocation for those six projects:
Small Amounts, Big Meaning
It would be easy to dismiss these FIPSE projects since they receive small amounts of money relative to the billions of dollars spent elsewhere by the federal government. But that would be a mistake. These projects with their vague descriptions, minimal oversight, and political patronage create opportunities for waste and abuse and directly siphon money away from real opportunities for reform. Unfortunately, Congress has yet again shown that it would rather dish out pork for “purchases of equipment” and things “related to science” than actually help foster competition and innovation.