Earmark (politics)

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An earmark is a legislative (especially congressional) provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects, or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.[1] The term "earmark" is used in this sense in several countries, such as the United States and South Africa.[2]

Earmarks come in two varieties: Hard earmarks, or "hardmarks", found in legislation, and soft earmarks, or "softmarks", found in the text of congressional committee reports. Hard earmarks are legally binding, whereas soft earmarks are not but are customarily acted upon as if they were.[3] Typically, a legislator seeks to insert earmarks that direct a specified amount of money to a particular organization or project in their home state or district.


Congressional earmarks are defined in clause 9(e) of rule XXI of the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 114th Congress as "a provision or report language included primarily at the request of a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Senator providing, authorizing or recommending a specific amount of discretionary budget authority, credit authority, or other spending authority for a contract, loan, loan guarantee, grant, loan authority, or other expenditure with or to an entity, or targeted to a specific State, locality or Congressional district, other than through a statutory or administrative formula driven or competitive award process".[4] The House Rules impose disclosure requirements for earmarks, while a standing rule of the Republican Conference has, since the 112th Congress, imposed an "earmark moratorium".[5] According to the federal Office of Management and Budget, earmarks are funds provided by Congress for projects or programs that curtail the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.[6]

The definition most widely used was developed by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress:

"Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report)."[7]

In the United States legislative appropriations process, Congress is required, by the limits specified under Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, to pass legislation directing all appropriations of money drawn from the U.S. Treasury. This provides Congress with the power to earmark funds it appropriates to be spent on specific named projects. The earmarking process has become a regular part of the process of allocating funds within the Federal government.

Earmarking differs from the broader appropriations process in which Congress grants a yearly lump sum of money to a federal agency. These monies are allocated by the agency according to its legal authority and internal budgeting process. With an earmark, Congress directs a specified amount of money from an agency's budget to be spent on a particular project. In the past members of Congress did not have to identify themselves or the project; however, as a result of recent reforms in Congress, earmarks are associated with requesting members in conference reports and members must certify that they and their immediate families have no direct financial interest in the earmark.[citation needed]

Earmarks have often been treated as being synonymous with "pork barrel" legislation.[8] Despite considerable overlap,[9] the two are not the same: what constitutes an earmark is an objective determination, while what is "pork-barrel" spending is subjective.[10] One legislator's "pork" is another's vital project.[11]

In March 2010, the House Appropriations Committee implemented rules to ban earmarks to for-profit corporations. According to the New York Times, approximately 1,000 such earmarks were authorized in the previous year, worth $1.7 billion.[12] House Speaker John Boehner announced in November 2012 that the ban on earmarks in the House of Representatives would be implemented in the 113th Congress as well.[13]


Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly point out that directing money to particular purposes is a core constitutional function of Congress. If Congress does not make a specific allocation, the task falls to the executive branch; there is no guarantee that the allocation made by executive agencies will be superior to that of Congress.[14] Presidents and executive officials can use the allocation of spending to reward friends and punish enemies.[15]

The process of earmarking has been substantially reformed since the beginning of the 110th United States Congress. Members of Congress must post all their requests on their websites and they must sign a certification letter (then put online) indicating that neither they nor their spouse has financial interest in the earmark request.[16] And many members have instituted an applications process that their constituents must undergo for earmark requests.[17]

Finally, earmarks constituted less than 1% of the 2010 federal budget, down from about 1.1% in 2006.[18]

There are also those who opine that "earmarks are good" because they are more democratic and less bureaucratic than traditional appropriation spending, which generally is not tailored to specific projects.[19]

In popular culture

The Gravina Island Bridge, popularly known as the "Bridge to Nowhere", has become shorthand for frivolous earmarks.[20]

"The Earmark" is also the name of a political satire website.[21]

See also


  1. Earmarks. Earmarks.omb.gov (November 12, 2010). Retrieved November 16, 2010.
  2. http://www.treasury.gov.za/public%20comments/Discussion%20Paper%20Carbon%20Taxes%2081210.pdf
  3. Earmarks in Appropriation Acts: FY1994, FY1996, FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005, January 26, 2006
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. [3]
  7. Comparison of Selected Senate Earmark Reform Proposals
  8. E.g., Diana Marrero, "Alaska 1st, Ariz. last in pork spending", USA Today, March 22, 2008 ("pork-barrel spending, otherwise known as earmarks"). Retrieved November 4, 2009.
  9. E.g, Ronald D. Utt, "How Congressional Earmarks and Pork-Barrel Spending Undermine State and Local Decisionmaking"; The Heritage Foundation, April 2, 1999 ("'pork' . . . often manifests itself as a specific line item, or 'earmark.'"). Retrieved November 4, 2009.
  10. For one view, see Citizens Against Government Waste, 2006 Pig Book Summary. Retrieved November 4, 2009.
  11. Judy Sarasohn, "Putting the Pork in One Barrel", The Washington Post, August 17, 2006.
  12. Eric Lichtblau, "New Earmark Rules Have Lobbyists Scrambling", The New York Times, March 11, 2010.
  13. Dinan, Stephen, "[4]", "The Washington Times", November 16, 2013
  14. http://www.cheesefactoriesonthemoon.com
  15. Scott A. Frisch and Sean Q Kelly, "Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy" (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)ISBN 978-1-59451-731-0[page needed]
  16. [5]
  17. Earmarks Are A Model, Not A Menace – Sunday, November 7, 2010. NationalJournal.com. Retrieved on November 16, 2010.
  18. House bans some earmarks amid ethics concerns
  19. Herdt, Timm (August 10, 2010). "Contrarian view: Earmarks are good". Ventura County Star. Retrieved November 11, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. The Politics of the 'Bridge to Nowhere'. Newsweek (September 8, 2008). Retrieved November 16, 2010.
  21. Political Humor from Below the Beltway. The Earmark. Retrieved November 16, 2010.

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