Friday, December 17, 2010

Are Earmarks Like Pornography? A Few Results from an Internet-Based Survey

As the FY 2011 appropriations cycle becomes white hot, controversy over earmarks once again surfaces, presenting one more sticking point for passing an omnibus appropriations bill. Earmark foes are demanding that earmarks be stripped from the omnibus or the president should veto the bill and demand that the earmarks be expunged.

Reporters have again dutifully taken the bait and are writing their obligatory stories ridiculing select earmarks that are included in the bill (while failing to do any research into the earmarks to determine whether they might be justified).

Where would the American public be without the media pointing out these “pet projects” for us?

According to Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, we do not need the media’s help. He argues that:
In at least one way, earmarks are like pornography: There's no universally accepted definition. Potter Stewart, a justice on the Supreme Court, famously said of pornography in 1964, ‘I know it when I see it.’ Well, most Americans know earmarks when they see them.[1]
Critics of earmarks extol the virtues of government expenditures determined through competitive, neutral, bureaucratic processes. “Peer review,” for instance, is held up as the gold standard for determining project funding. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which rely on panels of experts to objectively judge research proposals, are held up as prime examples of how projects should be funded.

If “most Americans know earmarks when they see them” they certainly will know an expenditure determined through a competitive, neutral, bureaucratic processes when they see it too.

We were curious: Provided with examples of earmarks and bureaucratically determined grant projects will individuals be able to consistently distinguish between the two?

Given the constant drumbeat of negativity provided by “watchdog groups” and the media, will individuals consistently conclude that spending driven by bureaucratic decisions are consistently “better” (i.e., less “wasteful”) than earmarked expenditures?

To partially satisfy our curiosity we conducted a non-random internet-based survey. While the results are not representative of American public opinion, they are suggestive.[2]

Respondents were given a short description of a real project and asked to identify it as either an earmark or a bureaucratically determined project (see Figure 1). The wording of our items is specifically intended to present information about the earmark outside of any particular “frame” of reference that indicate what kind of project it is, or that will bias individual evaluations of the earmark, that is, whether it is “good or bad.”

Figure 1: This illustrates the format that was used to present the projects to respondents. Answers were presented in random order
Do respondents know an earmark when they see it?

According to our results (see Table 1) respondents correctly identified the earmark projects about 60% of the time on average, and the bureaucratic projects slightly over half of the time (approximately 53% on average). About 40% of respondents incorrectly identified bureaucratically determined expenditures as earmarks.
Table 1: This table indicates that most respondents correctly distinguished between earmark expenditures and expenditures determined by bureaucratic processes.
Among the projects we presented to respondents the Galaxy Formation Study was incorrectly identified as an earmark by almost two out of three respondents and the Grizzly DNA research study was identified as bureaucratically determined by almost half of the respondents.

Averages can be deceiving. Often groups are able to produce accurate predictions while individual respondents remain highly inaccurate. How accurate were individual respondents when it came to correctly identifying all eight projects?
Figure 2: Individual respondents were not very successful at consistently distinguishing earmark projects from bureaucratically determined projects.
  • Only one respondent correctly identified all of the projects; and eight more correctly identified seven out of eight projects;
  • Twenty percent of respondents were correct three times out of four;
  • More than half failed to correctly identify more than half of the projects;
  • Almost one-third correctly identified three or fewer of the eight projects.

In short, the ability of individual respondents to distinguish between earmarks and projects determined through neutral, bureaucratic processes is far from perfect; in fact, it is only slightly better than the flip of a coin for the majority of our respondents.

Do respondents think earmarks are more wasteful?

One of the primary criticisms of earmarks is that they constitute wasteful spending. With regard to each of the projects that we presented to respondents we asked them whether the expenditure was a “waste of taxpayer dollars.” Respondents were given five responses (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, or strongly agree). Responses for each of the projects are displayed in Table 2.

Overall none of these projects mustered a majority of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that the project was wasteful. The two projects that came closest to a majority were bureaucratic projects not earmarks. The two projects that were judged “least wasteful” were earmark-related projects. Based on the judgment of our respondents it is not the case that earmarks are consistently more wasteful than bureaucratic project grants.[3]

Furthermore our results (not shown) indicate that those respondents who correctly identified a project as an earmark were more likely to agree that it was “wasteful.” In sum, in the minds of our respondents earmarks are not equated with profligacy.

When asked to choose between funding the Woodstock Museum (an earmark) and the Grateful Dead Archive (a competitive grant-funded project) a stunning 85% of respondents chose the Woodstock Museum. This is even more stunning since the $2 million earmark for the Museum—sought by then-Senator Hillary Clinton—was so effectively ridiculed by earmark (and Clinton) critics as spending taxpayers’ money on a “hippie museum” that Senator Clinton requested that the earmark be stripped from the appropriations bill of which it was a part.

What do we make of these results?

We need to repeat, once again, that the results presented here are based on a non-scientific sample of opinions; they should not be construed as representative of broad public opinion. They do suggest, however, that public opinion surrounding earmarks deserves some attention.

Perceptions of public opinion on the issue are largely built on media coverage of activated opinion, the views of anti-earmark members of Congress, and Washington-based anti-earmark groups. Yet in a rare data-based finding the Pew Research Center reported that 53% of Americans were more likely to vote for a member of Congress with a record of bringing government projects to the district; only 12% were less likely to vote for such a member and 33% said it made no difference.[4]

It seems that without the “help” of watchdog groups or the media who identify earmarks for the public, individuals may be quite bad at distinguishing between earmark and competitively awarded projects. Furthermore, without the “help” of watchdog groups or the media our respondents did not intuitively equate earmarks with wasteful spending. In the absence of media framing that describes the most egregious sounding earmarks implying waste, individuals do not find earmark expenditures to be any more wasteful than competitively awarded grants and projects.

Politicians seem to posses some special insight into what the American public seems to “think” about earmarks. Announcing his change of heart on earmarks and his support for a Senate Republican moratorium on earmarks Senator Mitch McConnell said that by continuing to pursue earmarks the “..Democrats are ignoring the wishes of the American people.” President Obama said shortly after the midterm elections that he was “a strong believer that the earmarking process in Congress isn’t what the American people really want to see when it comes to making tough decisions about how taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Based on the Pew finding alone anyone who purports knowing what Americans “think” about earmarks is just dead wrong. If public opinion is half as nuanced as our small survey suggests anti-earmark politicians may be overplaying their hands considerably.


[1] Ronald Utt “Eliminating earmarks” Accessed December 16, 2010.

[2] These data are the result of a non-random sample of individuals responding to an internet survey. The sample was generated via social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, and through other traditional word of mouth techniques. The results of this non-scientific survey are not, and should not be, represented as indicative of American public opinion; they are, however, suggestive of patterns that might be emerge from a larger, more sophisticated scientific survey.

[3] On our scale, which ranged from 1 to 5 (strongly disagree to strongly agree), the earmark projects had an average score of 1.72 compared to 2.75 for the bureaucratic projects, indicating that the earmarks had more support on average than the other projects. This difference is significant at the p < .000 level (t=12.45).

[4] In our study 30% of our respondents report being a little or much more likely to vote for a member of Congress who pursues earmarks compared to 18% who are a little or much less likely to vote for a member who pursues earmarks. In our sample 53% of respondents report that the pursuit of earmarks would not influence their vote choice.

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