Oil barrel politics

by Alix R. Broadfoot and Michael E. Webber
Friday, January 20, 2012

As a new president and Congress entered office in January, current events continue to keep energy in the forefront of national concern. Volatile prices, resource depletion, climate change and national security impacts of energy trade have become a part of daily news and policy discussion. Americans will be watching the new policymakers to see how they respond to energy concerns. How they treat energy research and development — particularly the amount of funds dedicated to R&D, and the portion of that R&D that is allocated through earmarks — will be telling. If they’re smart, they’ll avoid allocating R&D funds through earmarks altogether.

The Federal Budget consists of 12 appropriations bills. The president submits a proposed budget in
February, both houses of Congress revise the president’s budget as they see fit, and then they meet to reconcile the two budgets. These reconciled budgets become the appropriations bills.

During the budgeting process, Congress can set aside funds for specific projects within their districts. These set asides are called earmarks, or pork barrel projects, and they function as an allocation of a portion of the funds in the budget. As such, earmarks do not increase the federal budget directly. With the recent trends toward earmarking energy R&D efforts, it might make sense to rename “pork barrel” projects “oil barrel” projects.

Earmarking is a time-honored tradition and is successful in bringing funds to local projects. But earmarking research funds is particularly troubling because it bypasses the peer-review process and merit-based award system that is common for research funding. Earmarks sully the process.

The standard system of checks and balances is not easily applied to congressional earmarks. The president has no way to veto earmarks that he deems wasteful. The line item veto, which allowed the president to veto a single part of an appropriations bill, was ruled unconstitutional in 1998. Within Congress, it is even more difficult to establish limits on spending, because all too often, politics override legislative power. Former Appropriations Committee member Mark Neumann noted that, “Once you’ve got one of your pork projects into one of these bills, you are then obligated to make votes on other bills, because, quite frankly, they take your pork away if you don’t.” The transparency of earmarks within the largest spending bills is also a concern.

Energy research funding peaked in 1979, making up 23 percent of the federal R&D budget, and has been on the decline ever since. In 2008, the federal energy budget for R&D was $1.5 billion, less than 4 percent of the federal R&D budget. R&D for energy is already woefully underfunded, and earmarks just make the funds available for peer-reviewed, competitive research projects even smaller.

The Department of Energy budget has three main areas of funding: defense, science and energy. Of these, the energy R&D budget is smaller than the defense and science budgets and has been the most heavily earmarked. Energy R&D — which includes energy efficiency and renewable energy, electricity delivery and energy reliability, and fossil energy projects — has had particularly high earmarks, amounting to $180 million in 2008. Meanwhile, science program earmarks, which include a variety of medical, nanotechnology, biofuels, green building and other energy-related projects, were $46 million in 2008.

In 2006, energy earmarks accounted for more than 20 percent of the DOE energy R&D budget. After the 2006 elections, congressional Democrats imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Though not as high as in 2006, R&D earmarking returned in 2008. This means that for one of our nation’s most pressing problems, individual policymakers — not energy experts — are distributing portions of our already strained R&D budget to projects that may or may not be relevant.

Ultimately, earmarks are important, but not critical, for Congress, and a system could be devised to monitor the purpose and validity of appropriated funds. An external policy for monitoring earmarks, like the line item veto, or internal checks — such as limiting the number of earmarks or capping the percentage of total budget earmarked — could be effective for keeping wasteful spending down. If the R&D earmarking trend continues unabated, however, the possibility looms that research money could go to well-connected researchers who are equipped with lobbyists and buckets of campaign donations, while good research with significant promise — but no lobbyists — would be left unfunded. America has the best innovation system in the world. But until we fully and properly engage it, our chances of solving the energy crisis will be slim. The first step is to clean up our oil barrel politics.

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