Notre Dame on Welfare

Anyone who thinks that Catholics don’t understand money should school themselves on the history of my Alma Mater, the University of Notre Dame. The Fathers of the Holy Cross founded the school in 1842, when Father Edward Sorin and his companions found themselves just north of South Bend, Ind., unable to keep traveling during a blizzard. They planned to move on when the weather got better.

They’re still there.

The Holy Cross Fathers take a vow of poverty for themselves, but they have always understood the importance of money to running a university. Their efforts over the years, and subsequently those of the school’s Board of Trustees, have resulted in a consistent top-three ranking in alumni giving. The campus is lined with dormitories and classroom buildings named after wealthy families that have given back to their school, sometimes footing the entire bill for massive projects that have helped Notre Dame keep its prestige and reputation for academic excellence. Those who lack the means for such a gift can at least pay for a small plaque, with their name or that of a loved one, affixed to a bench on campus (and nearly every bench has such a plaque) or at the foot of a tree.

When I was at Notre Dame eight years ago, I was told that it costs $1 million a day to run the University. I’m sure it’s more than that now. The school’s famous landmark — the Golden Dome — is a fitting tribute to Our Blessed Mother, covered in 23.9 karat gold leaf. The legend is that real gold is used in the paint sprayed on the Fightin’ Irish helmets before their football games each Saturday. Tuition is a staggering $31,542 this year — worth every penny — but student aid is also available to those who need it.

Notre Dame is hardly hurting for money. I’m glad that it isn’t. But imagine my surprise last week, when I got a close look at the earmarks in this year’s Financial Services Appropriations bill, passed out of the U.S. House on June 28. Among the many special projects contained in the bill is a $231,000 payment from the Small Business Administration to Notre Dame’s Robinson Community Learning Center. On the Robinson Center’s web site (which is on the nd.edu server) is the statement: “The Robinson Community Learning Center is a unit of the Office of Public Affairs and Communications under the direction of Hilary Crnkovich, Vice President.”

I have no reason to doubt that the Robinson Community Learning Center is a worthy enterprise and a great way for Notre Dame to give constructive help to those living in the troubled neighborhoods on its south end. It probably helps a lot of adults move forward with the education they never had, and improve their economic lot. The center runs a K-12 after-school program that helps children with their schoolwork and assists low-income parents by making sure their kids are not unsupervised from 3-6 p.m.

Although my knowledge of it is incomplete, I am glad that Notre Dame is involved in this project, which is located just a few blocks from the house where I grew up. What I really can’t understand, though, is why federal taxpayers — say, poor journalists in Washington, for example — are being made to kick in a quarter million bucks to help such a well-funded institution bolster its image in the South Bend community.

It is unfair to single out the Notre Dame earmark, but it does offer an illustration of how things work in Washington. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who requested it, is doing exactly what his Republican predecessor did, and exactly what nearly every member of Congress does. In addition to being Donnelly’s Alma Mater, Notre Dame is one of the larger employers in the district. Its faculty and staff gave him a modest $8,400 in contributions in 2006, and gave his vanquished opponent practically nothing. For a wide variety of reasons, it would be absurd for Donnelly, as a freshman Congressman and a son of Notre Dame, not to do what he can for the university.

Then again, perhaps there is some real harm in having congressmen snap up the spoils for their own constituents with such special set-asides. You can first ask the heads of federal agencies, who see such political projects eating into their budgets. More important, though, are the taxpayers, who remain largely oblivious to the corrupt but well-established system of earmarking that has been passed on from the old, corrupt Republican majority to the new, corrupt Democratic majority in Congress.

The real problem is not that a relatively small $231,000 goes to someone’s pet charity — the problem is the attitude this reflects. Earmarks do not, by themselves, make up a large portion of the federal budget. But it’s not hard to see why the government spends so much and performs so many unnecessary functions when nearly all congressmen view the federal treasury as a honey-pot for ingratiating themselves to constituents. True charity is about gift and sacrifice. It is not about making other people give and sacrifice under coercion, the preferred method of congressional charity.

The national news media has largely ignored the raging earmark debate, which has paralyzed parts of the Democratic agenda in Congress in recent months. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has enraged Senate Democratic leaders by demanding a clean vote on the same earmark transparency rules already adopted by Democrats in House. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently told The Politico that DeMint’s concerns about enacting earmark transparency are as “phony as a two-dollar bill.”

Someone should tell him that two-dollar bills are for real. Also that taxpayers have no more business subsidizing Notre Dame than they have spending $500,000 “redeveloping” the already gorgeous Barracks Row business district in Southeast Washington, or dropping $231,000 on the Harlem Chamber of Commerce. When members of Congress — influential because of their seniority or committee assignments — get to pick the winners, the rest of us lose.

As the Montana World Trade Center draws a cool $400,000 from our pockets, and “Noah’s pArk” in Los Angeles rakes in $550,000, members of Congress should reconsider why they came here. There are some people outside the Beltway who are productive citizens, working hard (maybe even employing others), struggling to keep at least part of their paycheck out of the government’s hands. You don’t help matters by divvying up the spoils, because those spoils came from us — they don’t belong to you.

David Freddoso is a political reporter for the Evans and Novak Inside Report.

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