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"Earmarking" is the term used to refer to a provision in legislation that directs funds to be spent on specific projects. Typically, legislators seek to insert earmarks which direct a specified amount of money to a particular organization or project in his/her home state or district. This differs from the appropriation of money to a particular government agency, for in these cases the appropriate executive department can exercise discretion as to where and how the funds are spent. The use of earmarks in the U.S. Congress has expanded significantly over the past thirty years, and is presently the focus of much controversy. [1]

History of earmarking

While many lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have proclaimed that earmarking has been common since the founding of America, recent research has indicated otherwise.

The idea of directing federal money to specific local projects originally came from Rep. John Calhoun (D-S.C.) when he proposed the Bonus Bill of 1817 to construct highways linking the East and South of the United States to its Western frontier. At the time, these projects were referred to as "internal improvements." Calhoun wanted to use the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States specifically for this program, arguing that the General Welfare and Post Roads clauses of the US Constitution called for it. President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional. He explained his reasoning in the following message:

Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms 'common defense and general welfare' embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog organization, has argued that widespread earmarking is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. The organization cites the evolution of earmarks since the 1970s. The 1970 Defense Appropriations Bill had a dozen earmarks; the 1980 bill had 62; and by 2005, the defense bill included 2,671. Among the earmarks in the 2005 bill was money to eradicate brown tree snakes in Guam. [2]

Similar increases are seen in the history of the Transportation Appropriations Bill. When President Dwight Eisenhower proposed the first national highway bill in the 1950s, there were two projects singled out for specific funding. In August 2005, when Congress passed a six year, $286.4 billion Transportation Bill, there were 6,371 earmarks, ranging from $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, New York to $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas’ rural roads. [3]

In all, there were roughly 15,000 congressional earmarks in 2005 at a total cost of $47 billion.

The earmarking process today

On paper, earmarks are intended to go through a public process. Lawmakers recognize needs which exist in their respective states or districts, and submit a written request to the appropriate congressional subcommittee asking for the panel’s support. In reality, however, earmarks are often not judged on their merit. Rather, earmarks are typically handed out as favors in exchange for votes on key pieces of legislation by party leaders and appropriations chairmen.

In addition, earmarks are rarely considered by the entire U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate during the construction of a bill. Rather, they are often added during the conference phase, which is when House and Senate leaders meet to iron-out the differences in their respective pieces of legislation on a particular issue. Following the conference, both houses must approve the legislation again, but if a member wishes to oppose a particular earmark, he/she must vote against the entire bill in order to do so. Given that most earmarks are inserted into massive pieces of legislation which fund the federal government, members of Congress are often reluctant to oppose them simply over an earmark. In addition, through the process of logrolling, members often agree to support a bill with another’s earmark in exchange for the same treatment. The result is bills with hundreds, if not thousands, of specifically-directed funding projects. Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that 98 percent of earmarks to appropriations bills in 2005 were added in the conference phase.

When passed legislation reaches the president’s desk, a similar problem arises. Not wishing to stall the budgetary process or risk a public relations backlash for rejecting a bill for transportation or defense appropriations, presidents are often forced to sign bills loaded with earmarks. Many presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have advocated a line-item veto, whereby the president is able to veto specific spending projects in appropriations bills without vetoing the entire bill. While Congress has historically opposed this expansion of executive power, it did grant it in 1996 with the Line Item Veto Act of 1996. The line-item veto was used 11 times to strike 82 items from the federal budget by Clinton. In February 1998, however, a federal district judge ruled that the law was in violation of the US Constitution. This ruling was affirmed in June 1998 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Clinton v. City of New York.

Perceived unfairness

Many individuals and groups consider earmarks to be inherently unfair. Rather than directing funds to the most-deserving projects, many believe the ability of an earmark to make it onto a bill depends on the seniority and power of the member advocating it. One commonly cited example is West Virginia. The state often comes out near the top of all states for earmarked higher-education funds. In 2000, Wheeling Jesuit University received $7 million for the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center. Another $2 million was awarded to the school's Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Enterprises. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was then (and remains) the U.S. senator with the longest seniority (serving since 1959). In addition, many credited the power of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to an earmark which directed $223 million to the building of a bridge in Alaska from the remote town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the more remote island of Gravina (population 50). Critics dubbed this project the "Bridge to Nowhere." [4]

Support and opposition for earmarking

Members of Congress have come out both for and against earmarking in the past. In 2001, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) argued that politicians know better than federal agencies how to properly spend money for higher education. He stated, “Nobody knows their constituents or their academic institutions or their programs better than the members of the House or the Senate who represent these organizations...We are in a better position to evaluate the merits of these programs than any executive agency."

In addition, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) issued a joint report in 2006 supporting the continued use of earmarks. They argued that in 2005, for example, earmarks were very beneficial for Idahoans. They built a new wastewater infrastructure in Bonners Ferry, supported jobs at the Idaho National Laboratory, improved housing for families at Mountain Home Air Force Base, and expanded course offerings at Boise State University. Without earmarking, in their mind, these projects would not have been possible. [5]

Many politicians, particularly fiscal-conservatives, have come out against the expanded use of earmarking. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for example, has called earmarking a “gateway drug” for a spending addiction. House Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has launched a similar crusade against earmarks. On June 20, 2006, he even attempted to strip an earmark inserted by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) which is set to provide $2.5 million for the Illinois Technology Transistion Center. [6] Flake also criticized an earmark of Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) which set aside $250,000 for a public swimming pool in Benning, California. [7] On July 8, 2006, Flake attempted to strip a $250,000 appropriation for the Science Museum of Virginia. He stated, "I would note that the museum will soon open a traveling exhibit on candy, sponsored by the Jelly Belly Candy Co...It does not sound like much research to me." [8] Each of Flake’s attempts failed.

Earmark reform legislation

One of the most common criticisms regarding earmarking is that the process lacks transparency. As noted above, lawmakers are able to (and often do) insert earmarks during the conference phase of legislation, once debate has ceased. In addition, members of Congress may introduce earmarks anonymously, making it difficult for constituents to follow the actions of his/her legislator.

In 2006, both the House and Senate considered legislation which many argued would make the process more transparent.

Senate legislation

Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006

On March 29, the Senate passed the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 by a vote of 90-8. The bill requires that:

  • All Senate bills or conference reports include a list of all earmarks in the measure.
  • Members of Congress who propose an earmark be identified.
  • Earmark proposals be accompanied by an explanation of its essential government purpose.
  • All bills or conference reports, including the list of earmarks, be available to the Senate and to the general public on the Internet for at least 24 hours before its consideration.
  • Senators be given the right to try to remove earmarks from any bill that moves onto the floor. An earmark could be removed from legislation with the support of sixty senators (without striking down the entire bill). [9]

Despite these changes, many felt as though the legislation was not strong enough. Critics cited a provision in the bill which deemed that no disclosure was necessary for money to be spent by federal agencies. Some estimates say that as many as forty-percent of earmarks are delivered through this medium. [10]

March 29, 2006
Passed, 90-8, view details
Dem: 39-3 in favor, GOP: 50-5 in favor, Ind: 1 in favor

Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act

On April 6, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a stricter bill, named the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (S.2590), which would require the Office of Management and Budget to create a searchable database of all government-appropriated funds and its' recipients. Specifically, the database would include:

  • The name of the entity receiving federal funds.
  • The amount of any federal funds that the entity had received in each of the last 10 fiscal years.
  • An itemized breakdown of each transaction, including funding agency, program source, and a description of the purpose of each funding action.
  • The location of the entity and primary location of performance, including the city, state, congressional district, and country.
  • A unique identifier for each such entity and parent entity, should the entity be owned by another entity.
  • Any other relevant information. [11]

On July 27, 2006, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs unanimously approved the bill. After it was stalled by unanimous holds for over a month, the bill passed by a voice vote on September 7, 2006. [12] Six days later, the House passed it as well. (See Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act)

Senate rules change

After it became clear that the House and Senate could not agree on broad ethics reform legislation in 2006, both chambers sought to amend their own rules to require better transparency. The House passed a rules change on September 14 (see below). The Senate, however, was unable to pass a change by this point. On September 18, a Senate leadership aide said that Senate leaders would not accept a change unless Senate Rules Committee Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) could come up with a measure that would easily be passed by the chamber. [13]

House legislation

Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act

On May 3, 2006, the House passed the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 by a vote of 217-213. The bill, which was largely focused at lobbying reform, was in many ways similar to the Senate version passed in March 2006 (see above). It requires that all bills advanced to the floor by the House Committee on Appropriations include a list of earmarks within the bill, as well as the name of any member who submitted a request to the committee for an earmark. [14]

As was the case with the Senate bill, many Democrats and anti-earmark conservatives argued the bill was too weak, and actively sought a provision which would require all earmarks to face a vote on the House. Their attempts were unsuccessful. [15]

Ultimately, the House and Senate were unable to reconcile the differences between their respective bills, largely due to limits set on independent campaign organizations known as 527 groups in the House version. Many senators opposed the measure, which the House insisted upon. [16]

May 3, 2006
Passed, 217-213, view details
Dem: 8-192 opposed, GOP: 209-20 in favor, Ind: 1 opposed

Amendment to the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999

On June 21, 2006, the House passed a bill which would amend the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act of 1999 by a voice vote. Specifically, it would establish a public database on the Internet to track federal grants. The director of the Office of Management and Budget would be directed to work with other agencies to ensure that the information was available to the public on a single web site within 30 days of the grant being awarded. The site would include the following for each grant: [17]

  • The name of the grantee and sub-grantees who have received the award
  • An itemized breakdown of that assistance by agency and program source
  • All awards a grantee has received for the past 10 years
  • A list of dates and amounts of federal financial assistance awards to the grantee [18]

The bill was criticized by some for failing to require disclosure of government contracts as well as grants. Ultimately, the House passed S.2590 (see above) which expanded the requirement to include both. [19]

House rules change

After it became clear to House leadership that differences on broader ethics reform legislation could not be reconciled with the Senate, it sought to change its internal rules to reform the earmarking process. A rule change sponsored by Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Rules, was introduced which would effectively require that all earmarks and their sponsors be disclosed in every House bill.

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. [20]

Proposed amendment

Before the bill was debated on September 14, 2006, Reps. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sought to have an amendment added which would include a prohibition on earmarks to any organization employing a spouse, family member, or former employee of the sponsor. [21] The measure was never considered on the House floor.

Alternative rules change

On September 13, 2006, Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) introduced an alternative rules change measure (H.R. 1008) which would amend Rule XXI of the House requiring that all earmarks: [22]

  • Be accompanied by a written request sent to the chairman and ranking member of the committee of primary jurisdiction at least seven days before such an earmark, or bill including it, is scheduled to be voted on by the committee or by the House.
  • Include in their requests the name of the member sponsoring it, the name and address of its intended recipient, its purpose, and a statement of whether the member sponsoring the earmark has a financial interest in it or in its intended recipient.
  • Are made available to the public through the website of the applicable committee (at least 48 hours before a conference report is issued). [23]

Despite having 17 co-sponsors in the House, Moore's measure was referred to the House Committee on Rules and was not considered before the chamber voted on the rules change proposed by Dreier. [24]


On September 14, the Dreier-sponsored rules change was approved by a vote of 245-171. The provisions in the change were effective only until the end of 2006, although future Congresses could choose to renew the change. [25]

September 14, 2006
Passed, 245-171, view details
Dem: 45-147 opposed, GOP: 199-24 in favor, Ind: 1 in favor


Many Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that it was too weak. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) called it “shameful” and “a sham.” Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) referred to the change as a “trivial pursuit,” saying it would do little to alter federal spending while preventing broader reform of federal ethics laws from being pursued. The rule change was also opposed by several Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee, including Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who argued that the change would have a disproportionately negative impact on them. [26]

(See Transparency in the U.S. Congress)

Executive branch changes

On February 28, 2007, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requested detailed earmark information from federal agencies. The OMB stated that it would begin posting "all earmarks identified by federal agencies in fiscal year 2005 appropriations bills" on its website. [1]

Controversial earmarking practices in Congress

Click on the name of the following members of the U.S. Congress to read their respective earmark controversies.

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. "OMB to post all earmarks on website," The Hill, March 9, 2007.

External resources

External articles