A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Defining an ‘Earmark’?


Q: What is an earmark?

A: Earmarks are government funds that are allocated by a legislator for a particular pet project, often without proper review.

FULL QUESTION

What is an earmark, and what is a good source to research earmarks and their sponsors?

FULL ANSWER

Definitions vary, but on our FactCheckED.org site, we say earmarks are "allocations of revenue in a bill that are directed to a specific project or recipient typically in a legislator’s home state or district." The Office of Management and Budget defines them as congressional funds whose recipient has been specified without adherence to the "competitive allocation process."

Earmarks appear in appropriation bills and authorization bills, legislation that authorizes the spending of government funds and the existence of programs. They can either be "hard" or "soft." When a bill allocates a specific amount to a project, it’s known as a hard earmark. When the amount isn’t specified, it’s called a soft earmark.

There are a few groups that monitor earmarking in the U.S. Congress. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste produces the Congressional Pig Book, which is a yearly compilation (going back to 1991) of earmarks and "pork." CAGW counts as pork any spending project that meets at least one of the group’s seven criteria, which include being awarded without competition or without a presidential request.
 
Another nonpartisan group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, has tracked earmarks for fiscal year 2008 and provides databases and analyses for appropriation bills, as well as reports on authorization bills. TCS maintains similar databases back to 2005, but they are only available by request.

Both TCS and CAGW advocate against "wasteful" government spending, and their numbers might reflect that. For instance, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget cites a slightly lower tally than CAGW for 2005 earmarks. OMB, too, provides a searchable database of earmarks (only for years 2005 and 2008), though users can’t search for individual congressional sponsors of earmarks.

Previously, bills had to be scanned thoroughly to locate earmarks, but new regulations are making it easier to identify them and their sponsors. Members of the House must now claim their earmarks, identify what the money is for and who will benefit, and state that they have no financial interests in the earmarks. Senate members must make available a list of earmarks, their sponsors and governmental purposes, and post such information online within 48 hours of any vote on a bill.

– D’Angelo Gore

Sources

Congressional Research Service. "Memo: Earmarks in Appropriation Acts," 26 Jan. 2006.

Office of Management and Budget. "What is an Earmark?" accessed 8 Jan. 2008.

Portman, Rob. "Memo: Collection of Information on Earmarks." Office of Management and Budget, 25 Jan. 2007.

H.Res.6. United States House of Representatives, 4 Jan. 2007.

S.1. United States Senate, 4 Jan. 2007