What Are Earmarks?

In This Together United States Congress Senate What Are Earmarks

Earmarks are provisions inserted into a discretionary spending or appropriations bill that directs funds in a very specific way, circumventing the typical allocation and process. Earmarking, along with other means of stuffing bills, allows politicians to alter the law of the United States without fair discourse. 

Earmarks are a notable way in which the public’s ignorance of the details of legislation is exploited. Many controversial earmarks have resulted in sensational headlines, but many do not elicit the media response they likely should. Most go entirely unnoticed, unreported, and because of this, the practice can be very lucrative to less-than-ethical political operators. Though voluntarily banned, earmarks are likely to return to use, with articles such as this describing why they can be so attractive. The primary reason being that earmarks can help break gridlock in congress – earmarks can persuade a Member to dissent from the majority of their party in exchange for concessions otherwise unavailable to legislators trying to muster support for their bill. 

Real change in current earmarking practices is something many activist and watchdog groups want, but congress continues to balk when it comes to adopting a permanent ban on misleading congressional practices. 

Not all earmarks are written with evil intentions. Many are drafted into bills as a means of convincing a congressperson to vote for a bill they may not otherwise, while others may be an attempt to do good in government – using earmarks to allocate funds to a project that may help people, but may not be able to pass as a standalone, transparent bill. The problem is, however, regardless of the intention of the earmark, Congress and American people deserve as much clarity and honesty from their lawmakers as possible, and earmarking is a form of omission through intentional obscurity. 

Earmarks can be very powerful, used by heads of congressional committees and other powerbrokers to get things done. Although earmarks can be a way to reach a compromise and move forward legislation, it also often leads to non-competitive bidding arrangements for government contracts exascerbating government inefficiency. They are often used to ingratiate a politician to a powerful group and help ensure re-election through favors collected using public funds. Earmarking – or the use of limited tax benefit or limited tariff benefit – offers an opportunity for the corrupt at worst, and a lack of transparency at best. 

Earmarking can even be comical, but that comedy comes from sheer absurdity. In order to give an idea of just what can come out of this strange tradition, here are some notable examples of earmarks of the past.

Defense Spending & Bribery

Representative Duke Cunningham of California was able to use his positions on the Intelligence Committee and the Defense Appropriations subcommittee to insert earmarks for military spending. This led to his manipulating this power to direct funding to specific contractors in exchange for bribes. Earmarks in this instance mean that the military is stuck paying for goods or services at a price they have no control over to a business they have no say in selecting. 

This is a classic case of outright corruption, something that the tradition of earmarking is far too friendly toward. Allowing such spending provisions is just asking for mismanagement of funds and creates opportunities for lawmakers to line their pockets or future campaigns. Cunningham was sentenced to eight years in prison for accepting over 2 million dollars in bribes. He was released in 2013. If he were a little more tactful, it is likely he would have never faced consequences. Despite blatantly accepting bribes, he was able to continue in his illegal scheme for years.

The Teapot Museum

$500,000 in federal funding was set aside for the construction of The Sparta Teapot Museum of Craft and Design. Sparta, a town of around 20,000 people, is in North Carolina. Funding for this project was secured by Representative Virginia Foxx and Senator Richard Burr, both from North Carolina. It was supposed to be a form of economic development to benefit of the state. 

Though one could easily make the case that this museum is a curiosity that could certainly increase tourism, it is clear that the funds are not being wisely spent here if the goal was economic development. This is a classic case of the inefficiency that emerges without adequate oversight. The museum is now closed and certainly that money could have done more good if it had been spent more wisely.

take action!

One Bill One Subject is meant to prevent bills from addressing more than one topic or subject. Though certainly among the shortest of recently proposed legislation, this bill is not insignificant. Such legislation already exists in almost every state constitution in the United States. To show your support for One Bill One Subject, phone and email your representative today. Get help automating this process here (it’s super simple!)

Share this post


Climate protection donors from across the political spectrum are set to announce at CERA this week a new voter education campaign to unite the middle 70% of Americans behind practical and effective climate solutions. CERAWeek brings together global leaders to advance new ideas, insight and solutions to the biggest challenges facing the future of energy, the environment, and climate.

Read More »

Our Pledges

Take our pledge to reduce your single-use plastic consumption.

Join us in protecting 30% of the world’s land & oceans by 2030 

Pledge to support companies and leaders working towards Net Zero Carbon by 2050