Pork: Best Killed by Kindness

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No, not the sputtering United Way, but the unraveling of Congress' ill-advised practice of "earmarking" groups in the children and youth field to receive a set amount of taxpayer money without competition. The hallowed practice of earmarking began with harbors and highways, but has spread through much of the federal budget. In 1993 Congress earmarked 1,724 projects. By 2000 the porkroll had grown to 3,476. This year the pork in the budget is the fattest in history: 6,454 unproven projects soaking up $16.8 billion that is therefore not available for peer-reviewed grants based on merit. In February Youth Today ran a partial list of the lucky few in the youth field that received earmarks totaling over $420 million.

Among those government agencies crippled by these noncompetitive (and often permanent) claims on their discretionary grant-making is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). In next year's budget, the Senate has recommended giving OJJDP $55.7 million for its special emphasis and discretionary grants program, but has earmarked 100 percent of those funds for 48 groups. The House's budget is a little better. Some, such as the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in Reno, Nev. ($3 million), the National Crime Prevention Council in D.C. ($4.4 million) and the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., ($1 million) have become porkers-for-life.

In recent years earmarks have infected virtually every federal agency, suffocating the kind of progress in youth program development that naturally results from competitive, may-the-best-idea-win grant-making. For example, this year's federal funding for the Corporation for National Service (CNS) came with over $19 million tied up in mandates to congressionally anointed groups such as the Youth Life Foundation in D.C. ($1.5 million) and Parents as Teachers in St. Louis ($2.5 million), with no clear interest or connections to national service, AmeriCorps or anything else administered by CNS.

True to the nature of pigs from which all pork derives, Congress is wallowing deeper into the trough. For fiscal year 2002, members of Congress have proposed 18,898 earmarks. If all were enacted, the feed bill would come to $279 billion, equaling the Pentagon budget.

Earmarking winners (and indirectly labeling others as losers) is an especially destructive practice in the youth service field. It breeds smug leaders and organizational sloth among the chosen. It visits cynicism and a sense of futility among the rest of this hard-working field.

A partial solution would be for Congress to foreswear all earmarks to youth-serving groups and instead enact and fully fund the languishing $2 billion-per-year Younger Americans Act (YAA). The nasty reality is that most of the groups that should be fighting to pass the YAA are instead scrambling to keep or gain a Congressional earmark, following the $75 million-per-year (and rising) trail pioneered by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Among others slated for earmarks are Big Brothers Big Sisters of America ($5 million), the Police Athletic League ($6 million) and DARE America ($2 million).

But with your help, the feeding frenzy can stop. President George Bush and his budget chief, Mitch Daniels, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are waging a praiseworthy (and pro-youth development) anti-pork campaign. Yet while this political pressure from above is important, it is the growing clamor from service providers that can end or at least reduce the practice.

How can you help? Not by writing an earnest letter to your member of Congress, as those cheery civics textbooks recommend. Aim instead for nothing less than an earmark for your favorite youth-serving agency, which undoubtedly employs you. Is your program as worthy as, say, Jobs For America's Graduates in Alexandria, Va. ($1 million), the Stop Truancy Outreach Program in Rhode Island ($900,000), Covenant House in Detroit ($700,000), Kansas YouthFriends ($500,000), the Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces, N.M. ($250,000) or the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown N.Y. ($369,000)?

Then why not demand - just absolutely insist - that your agency be taken care of by your fund-raiser in Congress? Don't forget a follow-up letter of complaint if your quest is unsuccessful.

For, paradoxically, only a stack of constituent requests that would fill an Iowa corn silo will ever convince Congress that earmark losers vastly outnumber earmark winners - and that the practice could therefore be an Election Day loser as well.