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Earmarks are funds that are allocated to a specific program, project or for a designated purpose, or that direct specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.

These projects or exemptions typically benefit a particular constituency, often within the home district or state of the legislating representative or senator.

Earmarks are usually attached to larger, often unrelated, bills and provide a way for members of Congress to secure funding for their local projects without having to pass standalone legislation.

The projects funded can range widely, from infrastructure improvements like highways and bridges, to funding for local institutions or specific research programs.

Often, these earmarked funds serve to boost local economies and provide public services.

According to the Office of Management & Budget definition, earmarks include:

  1. Add-ons. If the Administration asks for $100 million for formula grants, for example, and Congress provides $110 million and places restrictions … on the additional $10 million, the additional $10 million is counted as an earmark. However, if the additional funding is to speed up the completion of a project with no restrictions this is NOT an earmark.
  2. Carve-outs. If the Administration asks for $100 million and Congress provides $100 million but places restrictions on some portion of the funding, the restricted portion is counted as an earmark.
  3. Funding provisions that do not name a recipient, but are so specific that only one recipient can qualify for funding is counted as an earmark.

Slate’s “What’s an Earmark” article provides a distinction between earmarks and general budget expenditures:

For example, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service as a whole, no one would consider it an earmark.

But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward the preservation of a single building—definitely an earmark.

Controversy surrounding “Earmarks”

Earmarks have been a controversial practice in U.S. politics.

Supporters argue that they allow for much-needed funds to reach areas that might otherwise be overlooked, and provide a practical way for representatives and senators to meet the specific needs of their constituents. They also contend that earmarks make it easier to build bipartisan support and get legislation passed, as lawmakers may be more inclined to vote for a bill if it includes funding for their own projects.

Critics, on the other hand, view earmarks as a form of political patronage that encourages wasteful spending.

They argue that earmarks circumvent the usual budgetary scrutiny and allow lawmakers to fund pet projects, often referred to as “pork-barrel spending,” at the expense of taxpayers. Critics also suggest that earmarks can lead to corruption, as they can be used to sway votes or to reward political allies.

President Obama’s speech on Earmark Reform, March 11, 2009, called for legislation that would create greater transparency and public awareness of proposed earmarks.

Acknowledging that earmarks can be useful, the president stated they “must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.”

In response to these concerns, Congress imposed a moratorium on earmarks in 2011.

However, this moratorium was lifted in 2021 with new rules aimed at increasing transparency and accountability.

Now, earmarks must be publicly disclosed, with information about the requesting member, the recipient, and the purpose of the funding. Furthermore, members of Congress and their immediate family cannot have a financial interest in the earmarks they request.

Lettermarking is one way lawmakers who have pledged to oppose earmarks get away with them.

Use of “Earmarks” in a sentence

  • The Congressional budget included several earmarks, setting aside funds for specific projects in the representatives’ home districts.
  • Critics often argue that earmarks increase federal spending and contribute to the national debt, while supporters see them as a necessary tool for legislators to address the needs of their constituents.
  • In an effort to increase transparency, Congress is now required to publicly disclose the sponsors, recipients, and purpose of each earmark.