Are Earmarks Always Pork Barrel?

The earmarks members of Congress stick into bills aren't inevitably wasteful.

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The New York Times Economix blog had a modest defense of earmarks last week. Catherine Rampell argued that if you look at this list of the recipients of earmarks, you'll find that the biggest beneficiaries are institutions of higher education—not the "pork" and "waste" we usually associate with earmarks.

But is that jump to conclusion accurate? Are earmarks to benefit higher education really devoid of waste?

I looked at the details of some of the top earmarks to colleges and universities from that list. I was actually surprised by how much of the money went to research honest-to-goodness public goods problems that might be difficult for the private sector to replicate, such as forensic sciences or extreme weather protection.

Then there's stuff like this:

  • $800,000 to the University of South Alabama for oyster rehabilitation
  • $1 million to North Carolina State University for textile research
  • Maybe "oyster rehabilitation" isn't as catchy as a "bridge to nowhere," but it conveys the same message about where our federal dollars are going.

    Many of the other higher education earmarks are too vague to determine how porky they are. Auburn University got $1.5 million for "research." Just "research." Of course, no one is against research in the abstract, just as no one is against higher education in the abstract. But that doesn't mean that any and all dollars thrown at those worthy goals is money well-spent. Instead, we have to look at these things on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, the way earmarks are passed—crammed by the hundreds into large, politically popular bills—makes judging them on their merits difficult.