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Lettermarking is when lawmakers send letters to government agencies in an attempt to direct money to projects in their home districts.

This practice allows legislators to advocate for specific allocations within federal budgets or grants, while sidestepping the more transparent, and sometimes scrutinized, process of earmarking.

Although lettermarking can aid in directing funds towards essential local projects, it also raises concerns about transparency and the potential for fiscal irresponsibility, as it often operates outside the standard budgetary oversight processes.

The New York Times notes that lettermarking, “which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.”

Evidence of lawmakers using the process can only be obtained through time-consuming requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

As Jacob Sullum explains:

While none of these requests is legally binding, agencies are loath to antagonize the legislators who approve their budgets, especially when they have added extra money with a specific project in mind.

And unlike official earmarks, these indirect allocations are not explicitly tied to particular lawmakers in the text of legislation.

Use of “Lettermarking” in a sentence

  • Critics of lettermarking argue that the practice can lead to wasteful spending and the prioritization of pet projects over more pressing national needs.
  • In recent years, there have been efforts to increase transparency around lettermarking, with some lawmakers advocating for public disclosure of all letters sent to government agencies in an attempt to curb potential abuses of the system.