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).