In politics, earmarks are provisions included in legislation that allocates money for a project, program, or organization. However, there is no precise definition, with the term "earmark" often referring to any element of a bill that allocates money. For example, a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service would not be considered an earmark; however, if in the budget for the National Park Service, there was a line specifying money must go to the preservation of a building or wilderness zone, that is considered an earmark. The United States Office of Management and Budget definition for earmarks includes the following practices:
- Add-ons, such as an Administration ask for $100 million, and Congress providing $110 million with restrictions on the additional $10 million
- Carve-outs, such as an Administration ask for $100 million, and Congress placing restrictions on some portion of the $100 million
- Funding provisions that do not name a recipient, but are specific enough to imply only one recipient
Congress includes earmarks in appropriation and authorization bills and in report language that accompanies reported bills and a conference report. Because earmarks can be hidden in report language, the process can go unidentified by constituents. Earmark spending has been allocated for man things, including the following:
- Research projects
- Demonstration projects
- Academic grants
- Business contracts
The term "earmark" originated with farmers in England. Before the practice of tagging livestock, farmers would mark the ears of their livestock to identify them among a village herd. The term would move to politics in the 19th century, if not a little earlier, in which the livestock reference was used to refer to allocations of funds as the "fat" on livestock. Earmarks, in politics, have also been referred to as the "pork" or "fat" of a bill.
Earmarks, as their etymology implies, have long been considered controversial in politics. Earmarks are often added to popular bills, but they are also associated with corruption, as many politicians or parties may support a bill with their vote only if an earmark is included.
One such controversy came in the "Bridge to Nowhere," a $398 million bridge intended to be built to connect an island housing an airport and fifty permanent residents to a larger island where the city Ketchikan sat in Alaska. In 2005, members of Congress sought to defund the bridge to divert the funds to rebuild a bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Senator Ted Stevens, a representative from Alaska, threatened to quit Congress unless the earmark was sustained.
The bridge would never be built. Funds for the road leading to it flowed, and Alaska built a three-mile highway from the airport that ends at the shore and passes nothing on its way from the airport to the island's edge.
In 2011, following the "Bridge to Nowhere" and other controversies around earmarks in politics, the practice was banned by Congress, with Republicans leading the effort. This was intended to reduce the frustration over the apparent corruption in the practice of earmarks; however, the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste found that "pork-barrel spending" or practices similar to or the same as earmarks were continued despite the apparent ban. In the fiscal year 2021, the group found 285 earmarks worth $16.8 billion, up from the 274 worth $15.9 billion the previous year.
In 2021, U.S. Senators, led by Rob Portman, introduced a bill to permanently ban earmarks, based on their opinion that earmarks add to the toxic and "swampy" culture of Washington, D.C., as they often promote "pay-for-play" behavior that enriches lobbyists and funds pet projects. But the bill would be defeated.
In 2021, the United States Congress voted to bring earmarks back, with House Democrats and House Republicans working together to end the prohibition on earmarks, or "congressionally directed spending." Regardless of the previous ban's effectiveness, some have previously called for earmarking to be restored in the decade-long ban. One such commentator suggested the prohibition on earmarks, rather than increasing transparency or reducing corruption in Congress, actually increased legislative gridlock and increased the difficulty of passing legislation, as earmarks had provided a way for every side to win.
Some have also argued that earmarking works because Congress is more accountable than others, such as bureaucrats, who would otherwise make decisions about the allocation of funds for their specific agency. Especially as these members of the executive branch are appointed and cannot be voted out of their positions or otherwise held accountable.
Following the earmarks ban from 2011, which was partially a ban based on ethical concerns due to the revelations of abuse of earmarking, there was seen, or perceived, an increase in roadblocks in legislation. Despite the fact that earmarks continued regardless, in shadier conditions, earmarks were also seen as blunt tools to help members pass legislation, support leadership, and help politics move forward.
The case supporting earmarks—seeing earmarks as a potential positive in politics—has been made by numerous individuals. Often the points or arguments come to two points:
- Banning earmarks did not make them go away
- Earmarks help lawmakers get out of gridlock
Due to the lack of a common definition of what an earmark is, the ban on earmarks has not effectively done away with the practice. But when earmarks are not banned, there are further rules around the disclosure of earmarks used by both Chambers of Congress. These rules impose requirements on earmarks to be more accountable and transparent. Further, some have suggested that the practice of using earmarks, with more guardrails to protect against further corruption, could make the practice more lucrative for politicians and citizens.
The case against earmarks tends to be as straightforward as the case for. It focuses on the potential for waste of taxpayers' dollars, although some would suggest that earmarks provide greater transparency in that spending. Other reasons earmarks tend to be disliked in politics include them growing out of control, and they can be seen as encouraging corruption, especially in the potential incentivization of personal agendas.
Earmarks can also undermine projects based on merit, pushing legislators to fund a project on the basis of favorable earmarks included in the legislation. The inclusion of earmarks can be seen to undermine state and local government decisions, building those decisions on earmarks and sacrificing the details of those projects for the earmarks. Another point against earmarks is they are often seen as damaging to the budget process, which many consider a flawed and damaged process already, with a lack of accountability and responsibility to ensure the budget's funds are appropriately spent. Earmarks can further increase the waste and the "swampy" practice in politics.
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