Earmarks are important to understand because they have been vehicles for local defense spending and, often, corruption. Some of the most hard-hitting political spending stories in recent years, including the lobbyist Jack Abramoff corruption scandal during the Bush administration, involved earmarks.
Different definitions of “earmark” exist, but Taxpayers for Common Sense defines an earmark as legislative provisions that set aside funds within an account for a specific program, project, activity, institution, or location. Earmarks used to be rare, but their use grew rapidly in the last two decades: A TCS analysis of the FY1970 defense spending bill found just a dozen earmarks, but by 2005 there were more than 2,000 in the defense spending bill. (Office of Management and Budget database of earmarks; Taxpayers for Common Sense database).
Earmarks have since evolved from an obscure Congressional practice to a symbol of public disgust with government waste. Earmarks are often seen as the result of a pay-to-play culture where taxpayer money is diverted to reward campaign contributors, lobbyists, and cronies with pet projects. They redirect resources away from other more important governmental activities, increasing costs and waste and delaying the delivery of government services.
This perception fueled public discontent with Congress leading up to the 2006 elections. In January 2007, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make members stand by their earmarks, disclosing sponsors’ names next to the projects they requested in legislation. The Senate eventually followed suit, and further reforms required lawmakers to disclose all earmark requests (not just the ones that made it into bills).
Yet earmarks remained a petri dish for corruption. In addition to well-known earmark scandals of the past, in early 2010 an earmark lobby shop folded under the weight of a federal investigation and more lawmakers found themselves under scrutiny. The House of Representatives finally adopted a moratorium on earmarking for the current session of Congress, and the Senate again followed that lead. In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama promised to veto any bill containing earmarks.
But programs previously funded through earmarks continue to appear in spending bills. TCS has compiled databases of both earmarks and earmark requests since 2007 that reporters can sort by state, lawmaker, district and company to find earmarks in their district or beat. Researching the recipients of earmarks and their ties to lawmakers often result in stories. TCS collaborated with the Center for Responsive politics on a database that cross-references earmarks with campaign contributions.
TCS also has a primer on earmarks and the federal budget process. A PDF of that primer is included below.