The Maddest Part of March Madness

The NCAA tournament starts today and the nation’s capital is being swept up by March Madness — Georgetown is one of the favorites to win the national title, George Washington made a dramatic run in the A-10 tournament to crash the Big Dance, and as always there are strong contingents of fans of all the major contenders.  But the NCAA tournament isn’t all fun and games here in Powertown.  Here even an amateur athletic championship can be twisted into a vehicle for big government excess.

Here’s how it works: lobbyists for big universities descend on Capitol Hill and give members of Congress and their staff choice tickets to tournament games.  Luxury boxes.  Courtside seats.  Preferred parking.  Airfare and hotel.  The works.  During the games they chat up the members and staffers on all of the pork-barrel earmarks the university is seeking — it’s the ultimate in pay for play access, and it works.  University earmarks have exploded in recent years, reaching $2 billion in 2003 according to an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education, and ballooning even further since based on anecdotal evidence.

The Democratic majority promised to be tougher on earmarks and lobbying excesses than the Republicans were, and to their credit they did place a moratorium on earmarks for fiscal 2007.  Whether they follow through with permanent reform remains to be seen.  On the lobbying side, they tightened the old gift limit of $50 into an outright ban of all gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress and their staffs, but with a major loophole.  They banned gifts from lobbyists who work for private entities, but allowed unlimited gifts — thus luxury boxes and such — from lobbyists who work for government entities, including state and local governments along with public universities.  

To recap: gifts from lobbyists working for private citizens with money (freely contributed), verboten; gifts from lobbyists spending your tax dollars (coercively extracted), freely encouraged and unlimited.

Fortunately, there are solutions on both the university policy and the legislative side.  On the university side, students, parents, and alumni should pressure universities not to seek earmarks that circumvent the merit-based competitive process for awarding research funding.  They should also pressure universities to adopt a policy of not offering gifts to members of Congress or their staffs, including tickets to choice sporting events like the NCAA tournament and college bowl games.  While an individual university might seem to benefit from spending money on lobbyists and gifts to bring home pork, when hundreds of schools are all doing it the result is a massive misallocation of research dollars that leaves everyone worse off.  University presidents should take a broader view and withdraw from the political arena and focus on educating students.

Whether universities act or not, if Congress is serious about lobbying reform it 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 lobbyists who use taxpayer dollars to promote higher taxes and higher spending are allowed to so outside of the rules that apply to all other lobbyists.  Ideally, the situation would be the opposite, with tighter controls, or even a prohibition, on taxpayer funded lobbyists, who after all are compelling taxpayers to finance a lobbying effort with which many of them disagree.

Fortunately Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.) will today introduce legislation that will extend the gift-ban to taxpayer-funded lobbyists, including public universities.  This simple, commonsense step will at least force lobbyists who are being paid tax dollars to abide by the same rules as all other lobbyists, a measure that reform-minded members of both parties should support.  If they do, perhaps next March the madness will stay on the court.