The federal Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as funds provided by Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, specifies the location or recipient or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.
Attempts have been made to define earmarks in ethics and budget reform legislation. However, due to the controversial nature of earmarks and the effects these definitions would have on congressional power, none of these has been widely accepted.
Despite the lack of a consensus definition, the one used most widely was developed by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the U.S. Congress:
"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)."
How earmarking works
Article 1, Section 9 of the United States Constitution requires Congress to pass legislation that specifically directs all appropriations of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This gives Congress the power to earmark funds to be spent on specific projects. Earmarking has become a regular part of allocating federal government funds.
Earmarking is different from the larger department appropriations process. Typically, Congress grants a yearly sum of money to a Federal agency. The money is allocated by the agency as requested by the legal authority and internal budgeting process unique to each department. An earmark allows Congress to direct a specific amount of money to an agency's budget for a particular project, without the requirement of members of Congress to identify themselves or the project.
Critics argue that the ability to earmark federal funds should not be part of the legislative appropriations process. These same critics argue that tax money should be applied by federal agencies according to objective findings of need and carefully constructed requests, rather than being earmarked arbitrarily by elected officials.
Supporters of earmarks, however, feel that elected officials are better able to prioritize funding needs in their own districts and states. They believe it is more democratic for these officials to make discreet funding decisions than have these decisions made by unelected civil servants.
Critics counter that elected representatives have too much of a vested interest in their own districts and do not have the country's interests in mind when making these decisions with taxpayer money.
- Etymology of the word earmark
- Earmarks in Appropriations Acts
- The office of Management and Budget, The Budget System and Concepts (dead link)
- Comparison of Selected Senate Earmark Reform Proposals (timed out)
- Citizens Against Government Waste
- Ending the Earmark ATM
- Appropriators, OMB differ on how to cut earmarks
- Loading the Pork Train: A case study of why earmarks may be getting out of hand
- Congress Is Still Pursuing Earmarks
- Agencies Share Information By Taking a Page From Wikipedia
- Federation of American Scientists, "Earmarks in Appropriation Acts: FY1994, FY1996, FY1998, FY2000, FY2002, FY2004, FY2005," January 26, 2006
- PolitiFact, "Were there '$2 billion in earmarks in fiscal year 2012?'" accessed December 11, 2013
- Citizens Against Government Waste, "Time to end earmarks once and for all," accessed January 15, 2012