Grabbing a Slice Of Washington’s Pork

Ayesha Rook
February 1, 1999

Sheriff Mike Milstead of Minnehaha County, South Dakota, was looking to sweep out the ways of the old sheriff (now doing time in the state pen) and launch a new program to address youth problems. With a local high school survey showing that 53 percent of students had tried alcohol or drugs in the past year, Sheriff Milstead decided the time was nigh for prevention efforts.

Local-boy-made-good Sen. Tom Daschle (D- S.D.) came to take a gander at one of the sheriff's new youth initiatives and meet with the three deputies working as school resource officers. Sure enough, the federal FY '99 budget included $160,000 earmarked specifically for the Sheriff's Office for Youth Programs.

Over in Kansas City, Mo., the Thornberry Center for Youth and Families needed some breathing room. The center houses a Boys & Girls Club, alternative middle school, community kitchen and radio station, and offers space for community entrepreneurs. Without serious money — preferably in a lump sum — Thornberry's vision to expand the building into a local entrepreneurial center would never become reality.

After visiting and sending a proposal to Sen. Kit Bond's (R-Mo.) office, things started looking up. In October, tucked into the Fiscal Year '99 federal budget, came just what Thornberry's bank account needed: an earmark of $750,000 in the appropriation for the Office of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

The Omnibus Spending Bill signed by President Clinton last October was filled to its ears, so to speak, with such largesse — prompting youth-serving organizations across the country to ask, "How did those guys get a million dollar federal set-aside without even submitting an application?"

The answer, as in all things federal, is simple yet complex.

What's an Earmark?

Before exploring the long-shot gamble that goes into seeking an earmark, it's best to define what one is and isn't. According to Webster's Dictionary, an earmark is literally a colored marking on the ears of livestock, such as pigs. Figuratively, it's a set-aside in funding, as in "those monies are earmarked for the military."

There are Grade A hard earmarks, called "thou shalts" by those inside the Beltway, which pinpoint an exact amount of money to be granted to a specific organization, though often without any specific goals attached to it. And there are Grade B soft earmarks, which are often phrased as a Congressman's "strong recommendation" that funds be sent to a specific group for a perceived need.

The key to what makes an earmark an earmark is that, unlike other fund categories that are generic line-items or federal programs, an earmark goes to a specific organization. For example, the Syracuse-Onondaga County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Center in upstate New York is an earmark item in the federal budget. Funding for the Safe Schools Initiative to fight youth drug use is not, because that funding is for a program that gets spread out to many organizations.

An earmark is different from a federal grant because there is no direct competition to win it and there is no need to prove the program's effectiveness. So when Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) "urged" that the Department of Education give $250,0000 for community center pilot programs in California's Yolo and Solano counties — for "educational tutoring and parental outreach" — no one asked how those programs compare to, say, an equivalent program in Los Angeles.

Herein lies the reason an organization might be tempted to try for an earmark, according to one House staffer: If it doesn't have much of a track record, the research on its programs is inconclusive or the funding it needs isn't covered by existing competitive grants, an earmark can provide the money. Even the negative evaluations that have plagued the Los Angeles-based Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) programs have been no barrier to the politically connected program. A perennial earmark recipient, D.A.R.E is slated to receive an amount as yet undecided in FY '99.

Social Causes Muscle In

Until recently, the military and public works projects claimed the lion's share of federal earmarks. Federal spending on weapons research at giant corporations and on highways less-traveled (but deemed essential for national defense) peppered spending bills. These items still take up the largest share of earmarks. But increasingly, with higher education blazing the trail, social service, public education and health-related youth-serving groups are learning the earmark game. Hence, in what might be dubbed the "year of after-school program consciousness-raising," schools from Chiewall Falls, Wisc. ($500,000) to tony New Rochelle, N.Y. ($350,000) got earmarks for extracurricular programs.

The AIDS epidemic helped open the door for social issue earmarks in the early years of the Reagan administration, according to Thomas Sheriden, the lobbyist who helped write much of the original Ryan White AIDS funding earmark.

"Our bureaucracies were very slow to move towards mounting a response to an emerging crisis," Sheriden says. He and other health and gay rights lobbyists pressured the Democratic-held House to circumvent slow federal agencies (specifically the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control) by earmarking funds for AIDS.
"Citizens took an active role in leading government and it worked," Sheridan says. Ryan White AIDS treatment programs, now funded annually at more than $1.3 billion, have expanded and become an established federal program rather than an earmark.

Earmarks can be slippery to identify. On the surface, it might appear that a program like YouthBuild is an earmark or grew out of one. But Dorothy Stoneman, president and founder of the non-profit YouthBuild USA, says she and a coalition of grassroots low-income housing and job-training advocates wrote the YouthBuild legislation, which passed and was funded as part of the regular Department of Housing and Urban Development budget in 1993.

But even YouthBuild is not immune to earmarking. "We did get one earmark, but we didn't seek it," Stoneman says. YouthBuild lobbied hard but futilely for more funding for FY '98. "So the appropriators gave us a direct earmark to YouthBuild USA. But it was in the form of a challenge to get matched, three-to-one, with private funding."

As earmarks sometimes do, that one took the organization in a new direction that proved helpful. By seeking more funding from different private and public sources, YouthBuild isn't as vulnerable to the whims of annual federal budget appropriators.

Who'd 'ya Know?

The reason one organization gets an earmark and turns into the next YouthBuild or Ryan White program generally comes down to the maxim, "It's not what you know, it's who." One state director of juvenile justice, who requested anonymity, sheepishly admitted to Youth Today that he's expecting an earmark next year because he went to elementary school with a top congressman.

Personal or institutional bonds can go a long way. In Boston, Suffolk University Law School wanted a new building. Rather than submit a long and complicated grant application, Suffolk President David Sargent approached Rep. Joseph Moakley (D- Mass.) — a longtime friend and a school alumnus (class of '56). They discussed the school's hopes and the tough funding climate for large building projects.

An earmark $1.3 million for Suffolk appeared in the FY'99, under the OJJDP.
To get an earmark, an organization must have one or more members of Congress (and staff) on its side who will go to bat for it through the budget process. For the big spenders, like defense contractors and universities, this means retaining high-paid, powerful lobbyists. For some youth-serving organizations — especially franchised affiliates of national organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc. or the YMCA — lobbying is handled by in-house staffers.

Consider the Thornberry Center. "We met with representatives of Sen. Bond's office here. We talked about the project and the needs for it and we talked about potential sources of funding," says Lisa Gessen, vice president of resource development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City. Gessen wanted $250,000 to $1.5 million to expand the center. She says Bond's staff picked the $750,000 funding level, illustrating how unpredictable the amount of an earmark can be.

Gessen could have asked the national Boys & Girls Clubs of America's in-house, Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, Robbie Calloway, for help, but she didn't need it. Calloway has earned the moniker "the $40-million-dollar man" thanks to his group's earmark in the budget of the Office of Justice Programs, and for broader policy changes and funding benefiting youth-serving programs that he has helped secure.

Independent lobbyists occasionally work for youth-serving organizations, but the going rate is upwards of $300 an hour. And "they'll be happy to charge you more," says Ledge Counsel Inc. lobbyist Alan Lopatin. The nonprofit rate is said to start around $20,000 a month, which Lopatin says is the ballpark amount charged to universities, but varies according to project and desired outcome. (See inset.)

For many universities, like Tulane University Medical Center — earmarked at $1.5 million for its Project Return program to fight recidivism among released convicts — it takes money to make money. But since there is no guarantee of winning an earmark after spending on a lobbyist, most youth-serving organizations take the grassroots meet-your-representative approach, have a national organization's in-house lobbyists do the work, or try both.

The Danger

So what's in it for the legislator who helps build a youth center in Kansas City? Sen. Bond's office called funding he secured for Thornberry and other local programs a "strategic investment for the Kansas City region."

Another factor may have been that the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Dave Smith, is from a family of well-known Democratic civic activists and organizers. Though Bond's earmarks for the Thornberry Center might not sway local Democratic minority voters to stump for him, they might be less inclined to vote against him thanks to his help for a center in a minority neighborhood.

Although he sees lobbying as a part of the democratic process, Sheriden worries that earmarking for health and social issues might become a victim of its success. "We need to be careful to keep Congress focused on priorities, not overusing the process to achieve a more narrow project" than is really needed, he says.

This year's $8.12 million earmark for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children comes on the heels of last year's hard earmark of $6.2 million and portends increasing support for years to come. This snowball effect, says one House staffer, can hurt youth-serving organizations over the long-term. "You might get an earmark this year, but when you apply for a grant next year, the precedent you helped set means there will be less money left for you to compete for later," she says.

Critics of earmarking, like Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), estimate that $12-15 billion dollars of "unnecessary set-asides" are included in the federal budget each year. Based on his group's estimates, earmarks of all kinds made up about two percent of the 1998 budget.

The states that received the most earmarked funding per capita in 1998 were represented by the most senior ranking members of Congress, according to CAGW. The winners and their hauls in dollars per state resident were: Mississippi ($310.57; Sen.

Thad Cochran, (R-Miss.), Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development); Alaska ($205.99; Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska), Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense); Washington, D.C. ($123.72; Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, (R-Tex.) Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Washington D.C.); Hawaii ($86.59; Sen. Daniel Inouye, (D-Hawaii) Ranking Member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense) and Montana ($57.28; Sen. Conrad Burns, (R-Mont.) Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction).

Better Than Nothing

At Suffolk Law School, the director of the Juvenile Justice Center, Tony DeMarco, is settling in to his new post. DeMarco, who founded the groundbreaking Children's Law Center of Massachusetts in 1977, will now build a program to "demonstrate that quality representation of juveniles during the adjudicary process" leads to better outcomes for the troubled youth. By centering it at Suffolk, says DeMarco, the program will also train student lawyers in the legal issues affecting youths.

Even the staunchest critics of earmark funding agree that many of the programs funded have merit. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put on his website a list of "objectionable pork" in the 1999 budget, which included Suffolk and Thornberry, and sent it to news organizations. In a written statement, McCain said he does not claim that all earmark recipients are unworthy; he said his list was "designed to identify projects that have not been considered in an appropriate, merit-based prioritization basis."

YouthBuild's Stoneman argues that any funding for youth programs is better than nothing. "I think people are in a position where they have to raise money any way they can. And if they have the credibility and the political connections to get them [earmarks], more power to them," she says.

That's what concerns one House staffer who is occasionally lobbied for earmarks. "When people come to me about earmarks, I make it clear: if we do $2 million worth of earmarks in a substance abuse account that only has $50 million in it, that means that other worthy programs are not going to get the money," she says.

"People shouldn't have to think we're competing for a small pot," Stoneman argues. "They should think we are coalescing to fight to expand the pot."


Grabbing a Slice Of Washington’s Pork: How to Get an Earmark

Grabbing a Slice Of Washington’s Pork: Poi From On High

Rook, Ayesha. "Grabbing a Slice Of Washington’s Pork." Youth Today, February 1999, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.