The NCAA tournament starts today and the nation’s capital is being swept up by March Madness. That Georgetown is one of the favorites to win the national title and George Washington made a dramatic run to crash the Big Dance only adds to the fever pitch. But the NCAA tournament isn’t all fun and games in Washington, D.C. Here, even an amateur athletic championship can be twisted into a vehicle for big-government excess.
This is how it works: Lobbyists for big universities descend on Capitol Hill and give members of Congress (along with their staffs) choice tickets to tournament games. Luxury boxes. Courtside seats. Preferred parking. Airfare and hotel. The works. Then, during the games, the lobbyists chat up their guests on all the pork-barrel earmarks their universities are seeking. It’s the ultimate in pay-for-play access.
University earmarks have exploded in recent years. According to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, they reached $2 billion in 2003, and based on anecdotal evidence they have since ballooned even further.
Of course, the new Democratic majority promised to be tougher than the Republicans on earmarks and lobbying excesses, and to their credit they did place a moratorium on earmarks for fiscal 2007. But whether or not they follow through with permanent reform remains to be seen.
On the lobbying side, the Democrats tightened the old gift limit of $50 into an outright ban of all gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress (staffs included), but with a major loophole. They banned gifts from lobbyists who work for private entities, but allowed unlimited gifts — luxury boxes, etc. — from lobbyists who work for government entities. That includes state and local governments as well as public universities.
Verboten: gifts from lobbyists working for private citizens with money freely contributed.
Encouraged and unlimited: gifts from lobbyists spending your tax dollars, coercively extracted.
Fortunately, there are solutions on both the university policy and the legislative sides. As for the universities, students, parents, and alumni should pressure schools not to seek earmarks that circumvent the merit-based competitive process for awarding research funding. They also should pressure universities to adopt a policy of not offering gifts to members of Congress, which includes tickets to choice sporting events like the NCAA tournament and college bowl games.
An individual university might seem to benefit from spending money on lobbyists and the gifts they distribute in the cause of bringing home the pork. Yet when hundreds of schools are involved in this practice, the result is a massive misallocation of research dollars that leaves everyone worse off. University presidents should take a broader view, withdraw from the political arena, and focus on educating students.
The universities may or may not act. Congress, however — if it is serious about lobbying reform — must close this loophole. It is clearly contrary to the spirit of reform to exclude public-sector lobbyists from the gift ban. Moreover, it creates a dangerous bias in favor of bigger government when the lobbyists who use taxpayer dollars to promote higher taxes and higher spending are allowed to operate outside of the rules that apply to all other lobbyists. Ideally, the situation would be the opposite, with tighter controls. Perhaps there even should be a prohibition on taxpayer-funded lobbyists. These lobbyists, after all, are compelling taxpayers to finance a lobbying effort with which many taxpayers disagree.
Today, as the basketballs begin flying in Winston-Salem, Spokane, New Orleans, Chicago, and elsewhere, Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) will introduce legislation to extend the gift ban to taxpayer-funded lobbyists — including public universities. This simple, commonsense step will at least force all lobbyists to abide by the same set of rules, a measure that reform-minded members of both parties should support.
If they do, perhaps next March the madness will stay on the court.
– Phil Kerpen is policy director for Americans for Prosperity and an avid Pitt Panthers fan.