Earmarks are often considered equivalent to pork barrel legislation, but the two are not necessarily the same.
Over the years, agriculture—including the fruit industry—has benefited from funding gained by commodity organizations appealing to their senator or representative in Congress, who responded by providing them with special funding called an earmark.
Some notable fruit-related earmarks include funding for fireblight research at Michigan State University and Cornell University in New York ($346,000 last year), funding for research on peach tree short life disease in the southeastern United States at Clemson University, funding for grapevine breeding at Cornell University, and funding for Armillaria research and for the search for azinphos-methyl (Guthion) alternatives at Michigan State University.
Dawn Drake, manager of the Michigan Processing Apple Growers, said the earmark for fireblight research, which began after the devastation in southwest Michigan apple orchards in 2000, has been eliminated. That Michigan outbreak led to $42 million in losses and removal of an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 trees from up to 2,300 acres.
In Michigan this year, fruit growers would like to get an earmark for research on brown marmorated stinkbug. It was found in the state too late to be part of the funding process that will benefit other states where the bug was found earlier and where growers and researchers are mounting an emergency response.
That, of course, is a major benefit of an earmark—it can be fast. Convince your congressional representative of your need, and it can be funded, without debate or even a vote on the floor of Congress.
But in March, as members of the U.S. House of Representatives fought over a continuing resolution to fund government for the rest of fiscal year 2011, some $2.6 billion in earmarks were swept away, $356 million related to agriculture.
In April, members of Michigan Farm Bureau, the Processing Apple Growers, the Cherry Marketing Institute, and the California Apricot Producers met with Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who now chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. One of their objectives was to convince her that a program needs to be set up in the 2012 Farm Bill that would establish a pool of money to fund research on the mitigation of insects, diseases, and invasive species on an emergency basis—something that earmarks were able to do. “It would be the easiest and quickest way,” Drake said.
Ryan Findley, Michigan Farm Bureau’s national legislative counsel, said the elimination of earmarks might mean that commodity organizations will have to pony up money when these kinds of emergencies occur.
“We’re at a turning point right now,” Findley said, noting that no other provisions are in place, other than earmarks, to deal with emergencies.
Most farm organizations, like Farm Bureau, defend specific earmarks while believing that the earmarking process overall is abusive and needs to be reformed. In fact, the 2008 Farm Bill put some reforms in place. A competitive grant structure was implemented for the newly created Specialty Crops Research Initiative. Research dollars were allocated for specialty crops and a process was put in place for winning those dollars.
Findley notes that the competitive structure “is great if you win,” but if you’re late in the grant cycle or can’t win support from peer project reviewers, there’s no way to get money. Both the brown marmorated stinkbug and spotted wing drosophila showed up in Michigan last year, and Michigan researchers missed out on money to respond to it.
It is not clear why earmarks became a way of doing business in Congress, and why earmarks persist year after year for some projects, like fireblight. While the fireblight problem is certainly long-term, a continually renewed earmark seems an odd approach.
Marc Law, Joseph Tonon, and Gary Miller addressed this subject in academic papers published five years ago, one of them titled “Earmarked: The Political Economy of Agricultural Research Appropriations” and another “The Strange Budgetary Politics of Agricultural Research Earmarks.”
In these papers, they trace the earmarking process back to a law passed in 1965. They single out the U.S. Department of Agriculture as earmark-ridden, though to much less an extent than Defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where projects costing billions of dollars may be funded by an earmark.
Before the 2008 Farm Bill, only about 20 percent of USDA research dollars were allocated that way. Decisions about which research projects to fund were made by members of Congress through the earmarking process. The appropriations committees let the USDA know which projects should be funded through this system of “special grants.”
Because earmarks deliver narrow benefits to specific constituents, they are a form of pork-barrel politics, say the authors, who are economists and political scientists. By letting members of Congress make decisions about what research to fund, the role of scientific judgment is reduced.
Opposition to earmarks has arisen from scientists, who question whether the best research proposals get funding, and from members of Congress who are not in special positions on allocation and appropriations committees and so are not able to share in the quid pro quo of “You support my earmark and I’ll support yours,” the authors say. Many members of Congress use earmarks as part of their reelection strategy.
In general, U.S. presidents have opposed earmarks. As the writers of the papers explain, the president has a constituency of all the people, not just some. And earmarks made by Congress, the legislative body, must be carried out by the administration, the president’s executive branch of government.
The authors trace the earmarking process at USDA to unintended consequences of PL 89-106, the law that appropriators invoke to fund earmarked special grants at the USDA. It was passed in 1965.
“While this legislation was not intended to generate opportunities for political pork…once special grant authority arose, it created an incentive and an avenue for individual legislators to bring home narrowly defined benefits to their constituents at the cost of the population at large. This is in spite of intense pressure from the executive branch, members of the scientific community, agricultural stakeholders, and individual legislators.”
In a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower, University of Vermont economist Marc Law, one of the authors, said he thought the recent uproar over earmarks that led to their demise was dictated by the fiscal situation and the election of new members wanting to do something about it.
In agriculture, he said, the use of block grants to land-grant institutions, plus competitive grants, like those through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, should be able to address problems without the need for special grants like earmarks.
While earmarks are not politically feasible right now, he said, it’s too early to say that the earmarking process is gone for good.