What is Earmark Spending in the US Congress?

When Congress Spends So Much On So Few

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Earmark spending; also called "pork barrel" spending, is funding inserted into the annual federal budget by individual legislators in the U.S. Congress for special projects or purposes of interest to their constituents. Gaining the approval of earmark spending projects typically helps the sponsoring legislator earn the votes of his or her constituents.

The Government’s Definition of Earmark Spending

A 2006 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the research arm of Congress, on earmark spending noted that there was no single accepted “definition of the term earmark accepted by all practitioners and observers of the appropriations process…” However, the CRS did conclude that two types of earmarks were common: hard earmarks, or “hardmarks,” found in the actual text of legislation, and soft earmarks, or “softmarks,” found in the reports of congressional committees on legislation.

Appearing in enacted laws, hard earmark spending provisions are legally binding, while soft earmarks are not legally binding, they are often treated as if they were during the legislative process.

According to the CRS, the most commonly accepted definition of earmark spending is, “Provisions associated with legislation (appropriations or general legislation) that specify certain congressional spending priorities or in revenue bills that apply to a very limited number of individuals or entities. Earmarks may appear in either the legislative text or report language (committee reports accompanying reported bills and joint explanatory statement accompanying a conference report).”

Often "tucked" as amendments into the larger annual appropriations bills of the federal budget, earmark spending projects often come under criticism as being "rushed through" Congress without the full debate and scrutiny devoted to the larger parent bill.

Perhaps most significantly, earmark spending often results in the expenditure of large sums of taxpayer money to help a limited number of people. For example, in 2005, $223 million was earmarked by the Senate Committee on Appropriations chair Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to build a bridge to connect an Alaskan town of 8,900 to an island with a population of 50, saving a short ferry ride.

Creating an uncharacteristic uproar in the Senate, the earmark nicknamed "the Bridge to Nowhere," was removed from the spending bill.

Criteria to be Considered Earmark Spending

To be classified as an earmark spending, at least one of the following should apply:

  • The requested funding is not specifically authorized as necessary for the basic operations of the government in the annual budget.
  • The funding is requested by only one chamber of Congress.
  • The funding was not included in the President's Budget Request.
  • The funding results in a substantial increase over the amounts projected in the president's budget.
  • The funding is for a project that will benefit a small population or a narrow special interest.

Financial Impacts of Earmark Spending

Unlike Sen. Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere," many earmarks make it into the approved budget. In 2005 alone, over 14,000 earmark projects, costing about $27 billion were approved by Congress. The House Appropriations Committee receives about 35,000 earmark spending requests per year. In the ten-year period from 2000 through 2009, the U.S. Congress approved earmark spending projects worth about $208 billion.

Attempts to Control Earmark Spending

Over the past several years, several members of Congress have attempted to rein in earmark spending.

In December of 2006, the Chairs of the Senate and House Appropriations Committee, Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) and Representative David Obey (D-Wisconsin, 7th), with the support of incoming Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), vowed to put into place reforms to the federal budget process designed to "bring transparency and openness" to earmark spending.

Under the Obey-Byrd plan, legislators sponsoring each earmark project would be publicly identified. In addition, the draft copies of all bills or amendments to bills proposing earmark spending would be made available to the public -- before any votes were taken -- at every stage of the legislative process, including the committee consideration and approval process.

During 2007, earmark spending dropped to $13.2 billion, a significant decrease from the $29 billion spent in 2006.

In 2007, nine of the 11 annual spending bills were subject to a moratorium on earmark spending that was enforced by House and Senate Appropriations Committee under the chairmanship of Sen. Byrd and Rep. Obey. In 2008, however, a similar moratorium proposal failed and earmark spending jumped to $17.2 billion.