Thursday, December 30, 2010

Watchdogs Cooking Up a New 'Problem'

In a “shocking” discovery Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) reveals that members of Congress have found “alternatives” to finding funding for their “pet projects” and The New York Times dutifully reported on it.

Using a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request CAGW discovered a letter from anti-earmark Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) who lobbied the Department of Education to release money earmarked by the bureaucracy for a school district in his then-House District.

This is reminiscent of a study a few months ago by the Center for Public Integrity that we commented on here and here.

Then, as now, we pointed out that, especially given their new level of transparency, earmarks were a superior option for funding local projects, from a democratic point of view.
• Transparency increases the likelihood that the project request is available for public scrutiny; interest groups and individuals do not need to wade into the dark recesses of the bureaucracy, FOIA requests in hand, to identify member requests.
• Earmark requests promoted by members of Congress allow for a level democratic accountability that is absent in the bureaucracy. We the people can punish members for “stupid” earmarks or reward them for being responsive to local needs.
As long as earmarks (in their current form) are banned we can expect more reports like this, despite the fact that members of Congress have been hounding the bureaucracy about funding issues on behalf of their constituents since the bureaucracy began spending money.

Furthermore interest groups that previously relied on ginning up animosity toward earmarks to raise money from an outraged public needs to promote these stories to maintain their fundraising efforts. It takes a lot of money to clean up government. How can you raise money when you’ve “solved” the problem (earmarks) that previously buttered your bread?[1]

And the news media will continue to report on these “shocking” revelations—and helping interest groups raise big money—because the stories are consistent with a narrative understanding of members of Congress as inherently hypocritical and obsessed with reelection.

All this and the only casualty is a part of our American democracy.


[1] The degree to which CAGW can go to raise money is well documented. For instance see Bill Adair “For price, watchdog will be an advocate” Accessed December 30, 2010.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cheese Factories in the WaPo

We were a "little" pleased to get a mention by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein who noticed the interview with Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect.

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.

Cheese Factories on The American Prospect

Sean did an interview with

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cheese Factories on Wordle

Wordle: Cheese Factories on the Moon -- the bookJust having a little fun between meetings today. We took the text of our entire manuscript and entered it into Wordle ( and generated the word cloud to the left.  If you did not know that our book was about Congress and earmarks the word cloud tells the story.  Try it yourself; it is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another Partial Finding from the Earmark Survey

As readers of the Cheese Factories blog are aware, we are running a survey on earmarks.  The survey will continue to run for a couple of more weeks: take it here and please pass it on via email, and social media sites like twitter and Facebook.

Despite the perceived opposition to earmarks 47% of our respondents feel that members of Congress have a responsibility to pursue earmarks for their constituents.  Another 33% of our sample feel that most earmarks are "probably good."  Taken together, 80% of our sample takes a position that is sympathetic to earmarks.

If our results are anywhere near representative of overall public opinion they prompts an interesting question: If 50 to 80 percent of Americans have attitudes that are favorable or somewhat favorable toward earmarks, why is media coverage of earmarks almost 100% negative?

Note: This is a non-scientific, non-random sample; any results reported should be considered as suggestive of public opinion but not representative of public opinion. Findings are based on an N=133.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Partial Finding from Earmark Survey

As readers of the Cheese Factories blog are aware, we are running a survey on earmarks.  The survey will continue to run for a couple of more weeks: take it here and please pass it on via email, and social media sites like twitter and Facebook.

One interesting finding so far (see table below) is that 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.

In August 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; 12% were less likely to vote for such a member and 33% said it made no difference.

While our findings and the Pew findings are not directly comparable--e.g. different question wording and Pew's superior sample (larger and random)--both studies suggest that pursuing earmarks is, on average, a net plus for members of Congress at best, and makes no difference at worst.

Note: This is a non-scientific, non-random sample; any results reported should be considered as suggestive of public opinion but not representative of public opinion. Findings are based on an N=120.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Cheese Factory in Delaware

Scott talked today with Allan Loudell of WDEL 1150 AM in Delaware.  Listen to the interview.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Op-Ed on Earmarks in the National Journal Today

A little inside scoop on this one: We edited it as Scott drove me down to the CNBC interview.  So we are driving through Malibu and I am reading it out loud and shading the screen from the sun so I could see the text to make changes.  We sent it from a computer at Pacific TV where I did the interview.  Good times. Here's the link to the National Journal Op-Ed:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Earmark Challenge Quiz & Survey

We are conducting a non-scientific poll on earmarks and government expenditures.  Do you think you can tell the difference between an earmark and a bureaucratically determined expenditure?  Give the poll a whirl: 

You can help us spread the word about this survey by posting the link on Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn, or passing it on to your email contacts.  Once we have a large number of responses (we are shooting for a couple of hundred) we can share the results with our readers. 

Please help us spread the word!

The Cheesemasters.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Parochialism is the Point (sort of)

The election is over. Republicans won the House and increased their numbers in the Senate. Now the media are beginning to focus on how the newly-empowered Republicans will govern.  No longer are earmarks a “talking point;” now they are part of the discussion about how the Republicans will run the House, and how the Republicans might influence the generation of earmarks in the Senate.
One prominent criticism leveled at earmarks is that they are “parochial,” that is, that they are meant to benefit the narrow interests of a single congressional district or state.  The implication is that they do so at the expense of the rest of the country.
In the Senate one of the primary opponents of earmarks is Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).  In the weeks leading up to the election Coburn often sought to cast earmarks as parochial. In an interview with us a few weeks before the election Coburn stuck to this theme: “Earmarks promote parochialism…The oath of a U.S. Senator is to do what is in the best interest of the country as a whole.”[1]  The next day he repeated this same complaint to the White House fiscal commission: “Our problem is we’ve put parochial concerns ahead of the long-term interests of the country.”[2] 
The earmarks-as-parochialism meme long ago captured the media narrative surrounding earmarks.  The common use of the term “pet project” to describe earmarked expenditures communicates that point pretty well.  We expect that politicians will continue capitalizing on this narrative, which captures the attention of reporters.
What is mostly misunderstood—by many people, by many in the media, and by most politicians—is that parochialism is (partially) the point of the design of our political institutions.
In Federalist Paper #58 James Madison speaks in almost poetic terms of the wisdom of investing the “power of the purse,” the power to spend money, in Congress. He says Congress’ power of the purse is “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” The founders sought to provide a means by which “the people” could exercise a more direct influence over federal spending.
Parochialism has its benefits. Conservatives in particular--but others too--bemoan the “one size fits all” nature of federal government programs.  Using earmarks members of Congress can capture programmatic funding to adapt federal programs to local needs that might be overlooked by Washington bureaucracies. Earmarks provide an opportunity for members of Congress to offer “redress” to their constituents.
A “pet project” that results from naked self interest and that is anchored in parochialism is not less impressive because of its origins. In the absence of Senator Pete Domenici’s (R-NM) parochialism—his concern for New Mexico based Department of Energy scientists as the Cold War wound down and peace broke out— the Human Genome Project would never have taken off and produced one of the signal achievements of American science. Parochialism has its benefits.
Part of the genius of the institutional design we inherited from the founders was the conscious and creative incorporation of parochialism into our governing system. Earmarks are just one echo of the efforts of the founders to build a political system that was simultaneously responsive to the demands of the people and responsive to the national interest.

[1]  Senator Tom Coburn. Phone interview with the authors, September 28, 2010.
[2]  Walter Alarkon, “Fiscal panel poised to target earmarks” The Hill 9/29/10; Accessed November 5, 2010.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Far be it from us to defend John McCain, but...

Far be it from us to defend John McCain (R-AZ).  In our book Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy we characterize earmark opponents like McCain as ranging from naïve to disingenuous.  McCain repeatedly claimed throughout the presidential campaign, and continues to claim, that he has never requested an earmark.  We have documentary evidence that demonstrates that he did request earmarks before he experienced a political rebirth in the wake of the Keating Five scandal. His claim is simply not supported by the evidence.[1]

This document illustrates that John McCain
supported a pair of earmarks included in
 an Interior Appropriations bill.
As a foe of government spending McCain was a vocal critic of President Obama’s stimulus bill.  He like many other Republicans characterized it as wasteful spending.  Recent revelations in the investigation by the Center for Public Integrity turned up evidence that John McCain lent at least tacit support for a transportation project promoted by the city of Phoenix in his home state.  Specifically he offered “conditional support” for funding to “accelerate the extension of the PHX Sky Train” at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.[2]

McCain’s behavior with regard to stimulus funding has been described as hypocritical. We object to that characterization of McCain’s behavior, and the behavior of others who sought stimulus funding for their states and districts.

Former Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas uttered the words that inspired the title of our book.  He said:

As I am fond of saying, if the Congress had a vote on whether to build a cheese factory on the Moon, I would oppose it based on what I know now, and I cannot imagine the circumstance under which I would support it. But on the other hand, if Congress in its lack of wisdom decided to start a cheese factory on the Moon, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering, I would want a Texas construction firm to do the construction, I would want the milk to come from Texas cows, and I would want the celestial distribution center to be in Dallas, Texas, or College Station, Texas, or somewhere else in my State.[3]

In short, a member of Congress faced with what he or she considers bad policy has the responsibility to oppose that policy.  But once approved he or she has an equal responsibility to pursue the interests of their constituents, which includes pursuing funding for projects that will bring benefits to their states or districts.[4]

The story surrounding attempts by members of Congress to influence the expenditure of stimulus funds is a classic example of “gotcha politics.”  The stories trumpet the “hypocrisy” of politicians while ignoring  the larger significance of the story: Earmarks allow members of Congress to target spending to projects promoted by their constituents and they allow their constituents to pass judgment on the member and his or her earmarks. Instead by passing an earmark free bill spending decisions were pushed into the dark recesses of the bureaucracy. Back-channel politics—members of Congress attempting to influence bureaucratic decision making—on the other hand is very difficult to identify and bring into the light, and bureaucrats lack democratic accountability.  In short, earmarks are good for democracy.

[1] For instance in a letter to Robert Byrd dated June 29, 1987 (Right) he defends over a million dollars in earmarks in the Interior spending bill for two wildlife areas in Arizona saying “they have outstanding wildlife value including being home to several endangered species.”
[2] Ashley Parker “For McCain, Stimulus Money Questions” accessed October 19, 2010.
[3] Adam Meyerson, "The Genius of Ordinary People," Interview with Sen. Phil Gramm, Heritage Foundation Policy Review 50 (Fall 1989): 11-12.
[4] See a previous essay by us: “Why Cheese Factories on the Moon?” accessed October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Once Again Earmarks Prove to be the Better Choice for our Democracy

NPR Reporter Audie Cornish is reporting on efforts by members of Congress to influence the expenditure of stimulus funds in their states and districts (  Capitalizing on leaked documents and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act the Center for Public Integrity demonstrates that foes of the stimulus who voted against the legislation--and those who trumpeted the fact that the legislation was earmark free--subsequent sent letters to the executive bureaucracy seeking to gain support for projects requested by their constituents.

One of the central arguments of Cheese Factories on the Moon is that in the absence of earmarks spending decisions will be pushed into the bureaucracy where it is difficult--often impossible--to identify how spending decisions are being made.  In fact, it takes herculean efforts involving FOIA requests and anonymous leaks to get the information.  In the meantime, the earmark process is now fully transparent, only requiring a few mouse clicks to determine who asked for what. 

It was especially amusing that the primary champions of abolishing earmarks in favor of "non-political" bureaucratic decision making, Taxpayers for Common Sense, featured prominently in the story, fail to grasp that their crusade against earmarks will ultimately push spending decisions further into the deepest, darkest recesses of the federal bureaucracy.   In fact, in the "good old days" before earmarks were "democratized"-- that is, they became used routinely outside of the members of the Appropriations Committee--the chairmen of the subcommittees would routinely make calls directly to the bureaucracy to direct how particular monies would be spent. 

The longtime Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Bill Natcher (D-KY), was famous for insisting on not including earmarks in his subcommittee's bills. Year after year he would pass bills that were earmark free.  Apocryphal stories abound of Senator Byrd on bended knee begging for an earmark in a final Labor-H bill only to be rebuffed by Natcher.  Once the bill was passed Natcher would simply call up the departments and let them know how the money was to be spent (a completely untraceable "phonemark").

We interviewed Ryan Alexander and Steve Ellis recently for our follow up book Pork: Who Gets What, How, and Why and they seemed, in our estimation, to have little understanding about the earmark process (that holds for most of the reformers we interviewed), or how the changes they promote would lead to LESS transparency rather than more.

Pushing spending decisions into the bureaucracy not only undermines transparency but it removes the element of democratic accountability that is present in the earmarking process.  Bureaucrats, as hard working and good intentioned as they may be, are not democratically accountable; if they make bad decisions we have no democratic means of removing them from office.  Members of Congress, on the other hand, are democratically accountable; if they champion a bad earmark they can be voted out of office and, with the recent changes in the transparency of earmarks we have all the information to act on our democratic impulses if voters choose to.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Cheese Factory in Washington, DC

Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly will discuss their new book Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy Monday, September 20th from 5:00 to 6:30 PM at Catholic University in Washington, DC. Heavily discounted paperback copies of the book will be available. Please click on the link to get all of the relevant details. We hope to see you there.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Earmarks and Archives

Earmarks and archives are two topics near and dear to our hearts, so we obviously took notice when they both came under attack by Taxpayers for Common Sense last week.[1]  The interest group expressed disdain for a pair of $10 million earmarks included in the Defense Appropriations bill to support the organization and preservation of the congressional papers collections of late-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and late-Representative John Murtha (D-PA).  In addition the appropriations would support the creation of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Before continuing it is important to make clear that earmarks in support of congressional papers collections are exceedingly rare; at most there have been a dozen such earmarks in the history of the country (much to the chagrin of university libraries and university administrators nationwide).

We are college professors.  Our daily lives are consumed with teaching students about American politics and political institutions, and conducting academic research focused on Congress, the president, and appropriations politics.  In our research we rely heavily on the archived papers of members of Congress and, to some extent, presidents.  Between the two of us we have used about 100 of these collections; we have written three books (with two more in progress) and a number of academic journal articles.  Archived papers provide an opportunity to “get behind the scenes” of the member’s office and understand politics as it happens in real time, and to collect data that are otherwise impossible to access.  These collections provide insight into the legislative process and the making of American history that, if unpreserved, will be lost to the ravages of time and benign neglect.

The papers of members of Congress are peppered throughout the country.  Considered the personal property of the member of Congress he or she, upon retirement, defeat, or death may, at their discretion, donate their papers to any willing repository.  More often than not if the member does donate their papers (remember it is at their discretion) they wind up at a university in the member’s old district or state.

In most cases there is little or no funding made available to organize and preserve these collections, unless the member provides it or another donor can be found. Hundreds or thousands of boxes (depending on how long the member served, whether they served in the House or Senate, and how good they were about saving their files) arrive at the university library.[2]  The library may or may not have a dedicated archivist on staff; if they do the chances are good that the archivist is not trained to cope with collections as large and complex as those that come from a member’s office.[3] 

For these paper collections to be useful to students, academics, and others they must be processed and described and that costs money; money for staff, space, proper storage, and the like. 

The research value of the two collections is beyond debate.  As intensive users of these resources we guarantee that we will be among the first to exploit the immense research potential of these collections.  Senator Kennedy’s papers will provide insight into some of the most important legislation to pass through Congress in the last 40 years: Voting Rights, Immigration Laws, health care policy, and much more.  Representative Murtha’s papers will provide tremendous insight into the appropriations process and defense policy among other topics.

Does it take a multimillion dollar investment?  In most cases, no; but in these two cases Congress has taken the extra step of investing in centers that memorializes these two important figures and will provide a service to the broader community.  The Kennedy the Institute for the U.S. Senate is a one-of-a-kind center dedicated to the study of the Senate; there is no center in the country devoted to the study of the Senate.  Relative to the U.S. House the Senate receives little scholarly attention; a center focused on the study of the Senate could promote more intensive study of the Senate and, more importantly, provide a context for better educating the public on this complex institution.  Students at U. Mass Boston, and visitors from around the country—many of whom are visiting Boston to learn more about its rich history and place in the story of America—will have the opportunity to learn more about the Senate. 

Over the last several decades it has become increasingly difficult to convince students of the value of public service; we know from experience. The pervasive message coming out of our politics is that “government is the enemy.”  Who wants to work for “the enemy?”  The Murtha Center for Public Service (like the Stennis Center at Mississippi State University) could provide leadership in promoting public service as a career path, not only in Western Pennsylvania but throughout the country. 

In our view the mission that each of these centers will undertake is important to the national interest.  What is more important than understanding our democratic institutions and working in service to the public?  If anything we would advocate for more centers pursuing such lofty goals.  Better understanding of our national institutions helps democratic citizens develop trust in these institutions, understand the potential and the limitations of our political institutions, and inoculates them against demagoguery aimed at tearing down these bulwarks of democracy.

But, one might ask: “Are there programs within the federal government, subject to peer review, that could fund such projects?” Yes; but they are woefully underfunded.  Furthermore, because they are peer reviewed there is a built-in bias against using the funds to preserve the collections of “political elites.” For decades the academic study of history has focused on “public history”—shying away from “great man” theories of history—exhibiting a preference for focusing on collaborations with the public that preserve the collective history of groups, movements, and the like.  Thus, all things being equal, the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of Santa Cruz likely would receive competitive funding before an archive focused on a member of Congress.

One might also ask: “Could Congress create a program that would fund institutions that receive these collections in a more routine way; in a way that does not require an earmark?” Absolutely; but pundits, op-ed pages, and groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense would be lining up to criticize Congress for spending money on its former members, and scrutinizing the choice of which university got the papers.  Critics of Congress would, no doubt, concoct conspiracy theories and check with the Federal Election Commission to see how much money employees of the university donated to the member’s electoral campaigns over her career and suggesting a quid pro quo arrangement.

In the end earmarks are the only effective mechanism that the Congress has for preserving these collections and promoting larger goals like studying the Senate or promoting public service.  Rather than discouraging Congress from such action we should be encouraging Congress to enact a policy aimed at funding the preservation of the congressional collections and promoting the study of our extraordinary representative institution.

[1] Taxpayers for Common Sense Weekly Wastebasket, “Uncle Sam Shouldn’t Bankroll Lawmaker Libraries”, accessed August 6, 2010.
[2] The congressional papers of former Representative, Senator, Vice Presidential and Presidential Candidate Bob Dole (R-KS) reportedly filled an entire railway boxcar!
[3] The challenges associated with these collections spring, in part, from the fact that a member’s office is akin to a small business.  They handle hundreds or thousands of communications with constituents every week and employ several (to dozens) of staff to track public policy issues and legislation.  The Congressional Papers Roundtable is a formal grouping within the Society of American Archivists specializing in issues specifically related to the complexities of organizing and preserving congressional papers collections.  [As a follower of their email list I have seen quite a few emails from librarians that read “We just received this enormous collection of documents. Help!  What do I do now?!” –SQK]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reflections on Pork and Credit-Claiming in the Ruins of Ancient Rome

by Sean Kelly

When he died Senator Robert Byrd reportedly had 11 post offices and 2 airports in the state of West Virginia named after him.  After the death of Senator Ted Kennedy--owing to an appropriations earmark placed in the Defense Appropriations bill--Boston, Massachusetts became the future home of a center for the study of the U.S. Senate named for the Senator. The main terminal of the airport in Anchorage, Alaska carries the name of Senator Ted Stevens. Entering Scranton, Pennsylvania one drives into town on the Joseph McDade Highway; also in Pennsylvania one can cruise the spacious Bud Schuster Highway.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International
Airport. Photo by the author
For many Americans the appearance of the name of a member of Congress (or any other politician) on a public works project is particularly objectionable; it smacks of self-promotion. Congressional earmarks are often used to fund these kinds of projects. Cast as the “corrupt byproducts” of the legislative process, earmarks and the projects that they fund are often considered illustrative of the “obsession” that members of Congress have with reelection. In the examples cited above the member of Congress is explicitly memorialized by having their name posted on their achievement. In many, many other cases members of Congress claim credit for their accomplishments in press releases, by pointing to them in town hall meetings, and stump speeches as demonstrations of the members’ concern for their constituents’ welfare.

Credit-claiming is often referred to as if it were a behavior unique to American politicians who seek to attach their names (figuratively and sometimes literally) to particularized material benefits that they deliver to their constituencies.[1]

Credit-claiming is more common across space and time than many Americans might think.  A research group based at the State University of New York, Albany is engaged in a cross-national examination of “pork” in a cross section of countries.[2]  Traveling under a variety of names, and generated by different processes, “pork” in other countries is similarly an opportunity for representatives to be patrons of local projects.[3]  From a comparative perspective the fundamental insight of this group is that pork and credit-claiming are not unusual features of American politics, but are more general features of many representative systems.

So I should not have been surprised (though of course I was) when, on a recent trip to Italy, I came across evidence of “pork” in the middle of ruins of ancient Rome. On our second day in Rome we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Roman Coliseum.  As I stood outside its walls looking over the massive structure, which would be considered an amazing feat of engineering in any era, the first thought that entered my mind (not surprising for a political scientist who studies pork) was: “I know this. This is an enormous public works project!” 

Engraving from the Roman Coliseum.
Photo by the author.
Upon entering I was quickly drawn to an engraved marble slab with the name of a long-forgotten Roman Senator who used his position and his patronage to support this central feature of Roman society and entertainment. Having his name on display helped him to maintain his position within Roman society; such patronage was expected of Roman Senators.  With his name on full public display this Senator communicated to the people who visited the Coliseum (which included a wide swath of Roman society) his position of authority within the social structure of Rome and the Empire, and promoting himself and his family more generally, indicating his power, and securing his family‘s future position in the Roman hierarchy.  In short, this Senator was claiming credit.

Of course the most dramatic public works projects throughout Rome belonged to the Emperor.  These projects were meant to benefit the public (through employment and public accommodation), promote commerce, and to entertain, to be sure, but also to project the power of the leader by illustrating his piousness, his conquests in war, and his beneficence (real or imagined) toward the people, while casting his image in the broader context of Roman history.  The images in the reliefs that decorate the arches, buildings, and spires were meant to both “claim credit” for public works and to project authority.[4]

At a fundamental level the structures and monuments of Rome--bearing the images, names, and actions of Emperors and Senators--reflect a constant in politics: the desire on the part of political leaders to gain public recognition for providing public benefits.

Alexander Hamilton writing in the Federalist Papers--arguing against including term limits for the president in the Constitution--asserted that “…the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct…”[5] He suggested that it was the vanity of politicians that would cause them to “make the best use” of his time in power, fearing the negative judgment of the public by way of electoral defeat, public scorn, and perhaps derision.  From his point of view it the was the vanity of politicians that would make a politician “unwilling to risk the consequences of an abuse of his opportunities [in office]”--where he would be judged in the light of history.

There are, of course, hazards in comparing ancient Rome and contemporary American politics.[6] But wandering through the remains, and observing the repeated examples of overt credit-claiming, reminded me that there are some things about politics that remain fairly constant.

[1] As David Mayhew reminds us, it is critical that the claim of credit be credible, that is, that it is within the realm of possibility that the political actor could credibly deliver the material benefit through his or her efforts.  David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1974.
[2] Robert Nakamura, Mark Baskin, and Malcolm Russell-Einhorn, “Constituency Development Funds and Legislative Strengthening.”  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, San Francisco, CA April 2010.
[3] This seems to be the case especially in political systems where representation is based on geography, that is, where the representative is charged with promoting the interests of a population contained in a particular geographic district or region (in the U.S. case, a congressional district or state). 
[4] Lest one believe it unlikely that an Emperor would deign to “credit claim,” Augustus “boasted in his Res Gestae (19-20 and the summary 2-3) of repairing eighty-two temples, of renovating all five of Rome's existing aqueducts and of restoring the two key basilicas, the Julia and the Aemilia.” M. K. Thornton “Julio-Claudian Building Programs: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry”  Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 35,1:35.
[5] Federalist Papers #72 “The Same Subject Continued, and Re-Eligibility of the Executive Considered.”
[6] For instance, in Rome projects were funded directly from the coffers of individuals whether gained through the spoils of war or by collecting rents from the lower classes, whereas in the U.S. projects are funded through a public treasury stocked by way of taxation.  Public works in Rome often were the products of slave labor so that, unlike contemporary public works, they were not necessarily solely intended to promote employment for Roman citizens, though they provided substantial economic stimulus nonetheless (see “Julian Claudian Building Programs“ and M.K. Thornton and R.L. Thornton  “ The Financial Crisis of A.D. 33: A Keynesian Depression?”  The Journal of Economic History, 50,3:655-662).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Paradox of Earmark Reform

Earlier this year House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dbavid Obey (D-WI) announced a ban on earmarks for private for-profit companies in House Appropriations bills.  Like earlier earmark reforms--public disclosure of earmark requests, public posting of earmark requests, and listing earmarks in committee reports, to name a few--the aim of Chairman Obey’s dictum was to increase public confidence in the appropriations process by responding to a demand of Washington-based “watchdog groups.” Over the past several decades these groups have mercilessly attacked the practice of congressional earmarks arguing , without much supporting evidence, that they increase federal spending, are inherently wasteful, and inevitably lead to corruption.

Ink and indignation are predictably hemorrhaging from Washington, DC over the recent revelation that private firms have discovered loopholes in Obey’s ban allowing them to gain access to earmark funds.  Reporters from The New York Times and the Seattle Times cite cases where for-profit companies formed non-profit organizations eligible for earmarked funds, and other cases where for-profit companies have partnered with non-profits or universities that assist their research, allowing the companies to skirt the ban.[1] These strategies have been pilloried by watchdogs and the media as additional examples of the “corruptness” of earmarks, and the basis of repeated demands for further earmark reform or even a complete ban on the practice.

Obey’s ban while well-intentioned was ill-advised.  The Senate Appropriations Committee did not enact a similar ban, which provided an immediate alternative strategy for private companies seeking earmarks; just approach the Senate.  Further, favoring non-profit organizations over for-profit businesses is an arbitrary policy.  The marketplace of good ideas does not observe strict adherence to the for-profit/not for-profit distinction that Obey codified in the reform.  For-profit companies are often developing important products and technologies that are worthy of public support.  One example is the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP) that is widely used in Iraq to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices.  With only one customer (the Pentagon) the original designers and producers of the MRAP relied on earmark funding (in part) to develop and produce the first vehicles.  With design and production capability in place, when the need for MRAP vehicles in Iraq became obvious large-scale production could quickly ramp up.  In the absence of earmarks it likely would have taken years to design, test, and produce the MRAP vehicle that has saved the lives of thousands of soldiers.

The more fundamental problem with Obey’s ban springs from what we refer to as the “paradox of reform.”  The intention of the reform was to increase public confidence in the earmarking process by responding to one of the many objections of watchdog groups; the result, inevitably, is precisely the opposite. Opponents of earmarks use the imperfect results of the reform to intensify their attacks on congressional appropriations earmarks and their reports, amplified by the media, drive down public trust in the process. This paradox was evident following the first round of earmark reforms.  Rules that required listing earmarks in committee reports provided easy access to earmark data that, when combined with data on campaign contributions from the Federal Election Commission, could form the basis of a contributions-for-earmarks conspiracy, which is not well supported by the data (but disseminated by the groups and dutifully reported by the media).[2]  In this round of reform, for-profit companies skirt an ill-conceived and impossible to enforce reform; the resulting examples of the “failure of the reform” are presented as evidence of the “corruption” that sparked demands for the reform from the group in the first place. Watchdogs, in turn, demand new stricter reforms, supported by predictable public outrage,  with the eventual aim of driving Congress out of the earmarking business altogether (and, by the way, their loud objections do not hurt their fundraising efforts).

In the final analysis the only way to satisfy earmark critics is to ban appropriations earmarks altogether.  This would irreparably upset the Constitutional order envisioned by the framers of the Constitution who granted the power of the purse to the Congress to make government spending more responsive to public demands, and to balance congressional power against presidential power.  In the absence of appropriations earmarks the only recourse available for federal funding of local and national priorities are appeals by citizens to a faceless, non-transparent, and electorally unaccountable federal bureaucracy incapable of appreciating the priorities and concerns of people in communities across the country (except, perhaps, those cities, towns, and organizations with the resources to hire expert grant writers to help them jump through the hoops of the federal grants and contracts process).  Concentrating the power of the purse in the executive branch would further inflate the power of the executive branch and undermine the power of Congress, the people‘s branch.

Most of the cases of earmark abuse that were uncovered (and there are fewer than most of the public would believe) came to light through the legislative process itself; the legislative process has many of the features of a self-regulating system.  Reforms that improve transparency are good; most in Congress and most in the lobbying community supports reforms that improve transparency.  Reforms without a basis in policy, or that are meant to appease watchdog groups are ill-advised at best and, at worst, could erode the unique balance between the public and our political institutions that our founders sought to embody in the Constitution.

[1] Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, “Companies find ways to bypass ban on earmarks” The New York Times, accessed July 4, 2010; David Heath “Congressman Dicks finds way around earmarks rule”
The Seattle Times accessed July 6, 2010.

[2] Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly
“Earmarks and campaign contributions: less than meets the eye.” accessed July 6, 2010.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Interview on

We did our first interview about the book with hosted by Brendan Huffman.  Click the title above to give it a listen.  It runs about 20 minutes.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cheese Factories on the Web

The Cheese Factory is now live on the web!  This is Version 0.1 "American Cheese."  If you have ideas about how we can improve the site, or ideas for additional content, please let us know.

Be sure to check out the Cheese Factory Outlet for all of your Cheese Factory essentials.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Four Myths About Congressional Earmarks

Never has a quote so accurately summed up the arguments of earmark critics, and rarely is a quote as demonstrably false as this one from a New York Times article published on July 4, 2010.[1]
Critics say spending on earmarks, which added $16 billion to the federal budget last year, diverts money from higher priorities, typically does not require competitive bids and is often directed to experimental research that will never be used.
The authors of the article echo the arguments made by “watchdog” groups failing to critically assess their statements.  In this essay we take on the four myths about congressional earmarks that are embedded in this quote.
When the appropriations subcommittees make spending decisions they begin with a pot of money, a 302(b) allocation. This is the pot of money available to the subcommittee to spend on the programs that are funded by their bill. It is up to the subcommittee to decide on what this money will be spent.  A small percentage of this money will be “earmarked” for some specific purposes.  The subcommittee has not “added” money to the pot.  Earmarks do not add spending the budget anymore than choosing to purchase a box of pasta instead of a pound of bananas (i.e., earmarking funds for pasta) adds to one’s bill at the supermarket.  In fact, Congress often approves spending levels lower than those requested by the president shifting some of the savings to earmarked accounts.
Critics argue that earmarks divert funding from higher priorities.  What constitutes a “higher priority” is a value judgment and the pivotal issue is: Who decides what constitutes a “higher priority”? Without explicitly stating it critics of earmarks argue that the president (relying mostly on unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats making decisions under less than transparent circumstances) should decide spending priorities and Congress should simply rubber stamp those decisions.  In granting the “power of the purse” to the Congress the framers of the Constitution sought to situate this power as closely to the people as possible, to make government democratically accountable for spending decisions for setting priorities.
Furthermore, critics of earmarks fail to support their contention that the executive branch makes “better” decisions about priorities than does the Congress. For instance, as the problem of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) became apparent early in the Iraq War the lack of armor for military vehicles was defended by the Bush Administration.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said “you go to war with the military you have.”  Being kept alive by earmarks included in the Defense Appropriations bill—to the chagrin of the White House—was  an idea that might help soldiers in the field; the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.  MRAPs were not a “priority” of the executive (the repository of superior decision-makers), but Congress funneled funding into the project and ultimately saved soldiers’ lives in Iraq.  Likewise, the Predator Drone, which is used widely in Afghanistan and Iraq and is acknowledged for saving the lives of American soldiers, was resisted by the Pentagon and "pushed" on them through congressional earmarks.  Who wants an unmanned attack drone?  It is now one of the main arrows in the quiver of those fighting terrorism abroad.
Critics complain about earmarks being used for “experimental research that will never be used.”  To some extent this is probably true; some ideas will pan out while others will not; but that is why they are called experiments.  As academics we have hard drives full of data that were collected and never produced meaningful results; papers that were written and never published; grant proposals that were written and never funded; and the list goes on.  Experimentation and failure (and success) are natural components of the process of discovery.  Making precisely this point Albert Einstein famously said: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research, would it?”  Anyone engaged in research will tell you that there are no guarantees of success.  Are there any successes associated with earmarks?  What bigger gamble than to earmark initial funding to map the human genome—considered an impossibility by most of the scientific community in the 1980s—which ultimately produced medical and technological discoveries that will fuel biotechnology for decades to come.
            In one regard critics of earmarks are somewhat correct: Earmarked funds are often awarded without competitive bidding.  However even this requires some context.  First, the executive bureaucracy often grants money without competitive bidding (think here of the billions and billions spend on no-bid contracts associated with the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars).  Somehow the critics would have us believe that non-competitive grants from the executive are superior to congressional earmarks, despite the fact that no-bid contracts through the executive are far less transparent than congressional earmark awards.  Second, as we discuss at much greater length in our book, earmark requests do compete with one another within the appropriations process.  Despite popular belief not all earmark requests are granted.  Our research on requests for earmarks in the Interior and Military Construction subcommittees suggests that less than one in four earmarks are granted.  The earmarks that are included in appropriations emerge from a brutally competitive environment.
            We end this essay as we ended our first essay: “The use of appropriations earmarks is one political issue where the media consistently fails to exercise balance in their coverage.  While media outlets routinely take pains to seek out conflicting views on even the most widely accepted truths (e.g., global climate change, evolution), it is rare to hear dissenting voices on the issue of appropriations earmarks.”

[1] Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon, “Companies Find Ways to Bypass Ban on Earmarks” New York Times July 4, 2010.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Cheese Factories on the Moon?

It seems like a complete non-sequitur: Cheese Factories on the Moon.  The title does not exactly scream “earmarks” or even “politics.”  The first publisher to offer us a contract for our book insisted on a title change, believing it would be too hard to market the book.  We waited for a second offer.  Paradigm Publishers and our editor Jennifer Knerr offered us a contract.  Our first question to her was: “Do we get to keep our title?”  When she said “yes” it was a done deal; we quickly signed the contract before she could change her mind. Maybe it was an indication of Jennifer’s belief in the project, or an indication of her complete recklessness, or our own recklessness—maybe we worked hard on a book that will never sell!
Why were we so insistent on keeping the title?  In part to communicate to potential readers that while we were taking on a serious subject—why earmarks are good for American democracy, which is the subtitle of the book—we intended to balance the  seriousness of the subject matter with good humor, a contrarian spirit, and some irreverence.  Hopefully the title also communicates accessibility.   Political science scholarship is often opaque and, as a result, irrelevant to the public discourse.  We wanted this to be a book that could be read by students and people who want to hear the other side of the argument about earmarks (yes there is another side to the argument but one would almost never know that).  If we are lucky maybe we can influence the public debate in some small way.
            But the title serves another purpose.  It is inspired by former Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm’s state was home to the superconducting supercollider project in, which many saw as a pork-infested boondoggle.  He infamously said regarding his support for the supercollider:
As I am fond of saying, if the Congress had a vote on whether to build a cheese factory on the Moon, I would oppose it based on what I know now, and I cannot imagine the circumstance under which I would support it. But on the other hand, if Congress in its lack of wisdom decided to start a cheese factory on the Moon, I would want a Texas firm to do the engineering, I would want a Texas construction firm to do the construction, I would want the milk to come from Texas cows, and I would want the celestial distribution center to be in Dallas, Texas, or College Station, Texas, or somewhere else in my State.[1]
Senator Gramm’s quote reflects the tension that members of Congress face with regard to simultaneously serving the interests of the people who elected them and that they represent, and serving the national interest. It may not be in the national interest to build a cheese factory on the Moon; it may be a colossal waste of time and resources.  But the American electoral system is, by design, based on geography; members of Congress are elected by voters grouped into distinct geographic constituencies (House districts and states).  If lunar cheese production becomes the policy of the nation, a representative has a responsibility to pursue the maximum possible benefit for the people who sent him (in this case) to the U.S. Senate; for Gramm the people of Texas.
Gramm’s fanciful example also brings into view the important, if misunderstood, distinction between authorizing legislation and appropriations.  The most consequential decision that Congress makes is whether to authorize the building and operation of an orbiting cheese factory.  In so doing the Congress makes the project a priority.  Appropriations earmarks (directing spending to particular functions, hence the term “congressionally directed spending”) are not about how the money will be spent—that decision is made well before actual appropriations are made, when the program is authorized—but where the money will be spent; will the money be spent in Texas or Maine, Washington or Florida, or somewhere else?
Someone has to decide where the money will be spent.  Critics of earmarks prefer that the executive branch have exclusive domain over these decisions.  But there is no reason to believe that the bureaucracy is a “politics-free zone” in which all decisions are made with sole recourse to the objective technocratic expertise and cost-benefit analyses.  Presidents and other executive branch actors could easily use their power to award projects to the districts and states of influential members of Congress, or to benefit states that are important to his Electoral College coalition.  And the executive branch is far less transparent than the Congress. Maybe it was a coincidence that in November 1988 the Department of Energy announced its decision to locate the superconducting supercollider in Texas, the home-state of Vice President (and soon-to-be-President) George H.W. Bush, Senator Phil Gramm, and then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright.  Maybe it was not.
The focus on earmarks amounts to political sleight-of-hand.  Pennywise and pound-foolish critics of earmarks misdirect the public’s attention.  They cause the public to despair over congressionally directed spending (earmarks), while ignoring the far more consequential decision: the decision to authorize building a cheese factory on the Moon.

[1]  Adam Meyerson, "The Genius of Ordinary People," Interview with Sen. Phil Gramm, Heritage Foundation Policy Review 50 (Fall 1989): 11-12.