WASHINGTON -- On its face, it does seem absurd. Buried in a trillion-plus-dollar omnibus spending bill is a line requesting $165,000 for maple-syrup research in Vermont. Americans love the savory sap, and the Green Mountain state is the epicenter for its production, churning out 890,000 gallons this year alone. But why does the federal government have to get involved? And for what purpose are taxpayers forking over the dough?
These questions, undoubtedly, were on the mind of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when he launched his Twitter screed against the pork-barrel projects included in the omnibus. The syrup-research expenditure made ranked fifth on McCain's list of the ten most egregious wastes of money in the omnibus bill -- a surefire example of the pure backwardness of the appropriators in Congress.
Dig a bit deeper, however, and that $165,000 starts to sound a lot less like a testament to fiscal lunacy.
"This is a lifeline," Tim Perkins, the director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, told The Huffington Post, "not only for Vermont, but for all of the maple industry."
That industry is at a crossroads. While international demand for maple syrup is rising, a poor harvest in 2008 crippled the U.S. supply, and much of that void has been filled by Canadian manufacturers. If domestic producers are to survive -- and maintain U.S. consumers' access to reasonably-priced syrup -- they need a technological breakthrough.
It comes down to production efficiency, Perkins said. Maple-syrup makers are being burdened with major fuel costs for producing their product the traditional way. As a result, they are increasingly tinkering with reverse osmosis -- the reduction of the water content of maple sap. Traditionally, sap is concentrated at about 8 to 10 percent, said Perkins. But with reverse osmosis, producers are now trying to concentrate it at 20 percent or more.
"We don't know how the new standards will effect the quality of the syrup," said Perkins, "and quality and taste are critically important. If people can concentrate from 10 percent to 20 percent, it is going to cut in half the amount of fuel they need to use. That means the cost for making maple syrup will be far lower and the cost for consumers will be far lower."
Enter the earmark. For the price of $165,000 -- which is not an addition to the budget, but an allocation within the congressional budget framework -- the Proctor Maple Research Center will pay the salaries of doctoral-level scientists and a technician or two who will spend a year studying and trying to perfect reverse osmosis. It will also allow the center to purchase the sap concentrate to do the research and to keep the lights on while they observe it.
Why is that the federal government's business? Why not allow the private sector to figure it out on its own?
"We are the only people who can do this research," said Perkins. "The maple industry has been asking questions about processing for years. Little parts of it were answered, but big-picture questions haven't been answered. The University of Vermont built a building to process maple syrup. ... We built a new research facility just for this purpose. And we did it without federal funding. It was UVM and the maple industry who paid for it."
Perkins, of course, has a lot to lose if McCain gets his program dropped from the bill. If this $165,000 represents a lifeline, it's his life -- or at least his career -- that's at stake.
And while McCain may have singled out the earmark slated to head Perkins' way, he wasn't necessarily singling out maple-syrup research as a waste of money. Rather, the Arizona Republican has argued that it's the process that bothers him. Projects worth funding should be funded, but not on the sly, as an addendum to a larger or ostensibly-unrelated bill.
But herein lie two particular problems, with this case and with congressional budgeting in general. Maple syrup is the shunned stepchild of the United States Department of Agriculture. The department does have funding for specialty crops, which includes the maple industry. But to get it, an organization or company has to match the funds the government is offering.
"If you ask the USDA, they would probably say they don't exclude maple syrup," said Perkins. "However, if there is a choice between giving money to soybean and wheat they are going to fund those projects because they are much larger commodity groups. Maple is a regional thing. We just can't compete in the competitive arena for the funding."
In short: without the generosity of lawmakers -- in this case, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) -- the well would be close to dry.
"Maple trees and products are a sizable U.S. export resource, with great unmet potential," Leahy spokesman David Carle said. "This industry generates nearly $200 million for Vermont's economy alone. Maple sugar is the second-most economically-important agricultural product in Vermont, after dairy. These small, family-based businesses are deeply ingrained in the character and history of Vermont. The trees are also economically important to the entire Northeast region."
That's the broader problem with McCain's critique, the defenders of earmarks argue: lawmakers know their districts best. While they will naturally be predisposed toward bringing home the bacon -- syrupy or otherwise -- and while earmarking certainly invites lobbyists to put their imprint on the budget process, it often has some value. If lawmakers handed over the pursestrings to the executive branch and its agencies, entire subindustries could go unfunded.
"The question is do all of the decisions for that agency get made by the president ... or do members of Congress intervene?" Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Thursday morning on the Sirius XM Satellite Radio show "POTUS." "I listen to the people I represent on [these] questions."