What Is the Definition of an Earmark?

Examples From Legislative Bills


fStop Images/Antenna/Getty Images

The term earmark spending refers to a part of a spending bill that allocates money for a specific thing such as a location, project or institution. The key difference between an earmark and a general budget line is the specificity of the recipient, which is usually a particular project in a specific Congressman's district or a Senator's home state. Earmarking is often used as a tool for negotiation and deal-making: a representative might vote in favor of a project in another representative's district in exchange for earmarked funding in his own district.

Definition of Earmark Funding

Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for specific projects or programs in such a manner that the allocation (a) circumvents a merit-based or competitive allocation process; (b) applies to a very limited number of individuals or entities; or (c) otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to independently manage the agency budget. Thus, an earmark circumvents the appropriations process, as outlined in the Constitution, where Congress grants a lump sum of money to a Federal agency each year and leaves the management of that money to the Executive Branch.

Congress includes earmarks in both appropriation and authorization bills orOR in report language (the committee reports that accompanies reported bills and the joint explanatory statement that accompanies a conference report). Because earmarks can be tucked away in report language, the process is not easily identified by constituents.

Examples of Earmark Spending

Earmark spending relates only to funds identified for specific projects. For instance, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain sum to the National Park Service as an entity, that wouldn't be considered an earmark. But if Congress added a line indicating that some of the money had to be allocated to preserve a specific landmark, then that's an earmark. Earmark spending may be allocated for (among other things):

  • Research projects
  • Demonstration projects
  • Parks
  • Laboratories
  • Academic grants
  • Business contracts

Some earmarks stand out easily, like a $500,000 grant to the Teapot Museum. But just because an item of expenditure is specific, that doesn't make it an earmark. In defense spending, for instance, bills come with a detailed account of how each dollar will be spent—for example, the amount of money needed to purchase a specific fighter plane. In another context, this would merit an earmark, but not for the Defense Department as this is how they do business. 

Is "Earmarking" Considered to Be Unethical?

Earmarks have a derogatory connotation on Capitol Hill, largely because of specific earkmark spending projects that have little benefit to anyone but the businesses involved in doing the work. One famous example of such of a project is Alaska's infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” a $398 million project intended to replace a ferry to an island that is home to just 50 people.

Congress imposed a moratorium on earmarks that went into effect in 2011, which banned members from using legislation to direct money to specific projects or organizations in their districts. In 2012, the Senate defeated a proposal to outlaw earmarks but extended the moratorium by a year.

Lawmakers try to avoid using the term while still attempting to insert specific spending provisions into bills. Earmarks are also called a variety of different terms including:

  • Member-directed spending
  • Plus ups
  • Budget enhancements
  • Additions
  • Programmatic adjustments

Lawmakers have also been known to directly call agency officials and ask them to allocate money toward specific projects, without any pending legislation. The is known as “phone-marking.”

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, Kathy. "What Is the Definition of an Earmark?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-definition-of-an-earmark-3368076. Gill, Kathy. (2021, July 31). What Is the Definition of an Earmark? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-definition-of-an-earmark-3368076 Gill, Kathy. "What Is the Definition of an Earmark?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-definition-of-an-earmark-3368076 (accessed June 8, 2023).