What, exactly, is an earmark?

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April 6 2006 6:47 PM

What's an Earmark?

No one knows for sure.

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The U.S. government has earmarked $29 billion for pork-barrel projects this year, according to a report released on Wednesday by Citizens Against Government Waste. The House appropriations committee provided its own numbers, which claim $17 billion worth of earmarks for 2006. What, exactly, is a congressional earmark?

No one can agree on the precise definition. In general, the word "earmark" refers to any element of a spending bill that allocates money for a very specific thing—a given project, say, or location, or institution. For example, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service as a whole, no one would consider it an earmark. But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward the preservation of a single building—definitely an earmark.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Some earmarks are easy to spot, like this year's $500,000 grant to the Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C. But an expenditure doesn't have to be an earmark just because it's specific. Defense spending bills, for example, come with a very detailed accounting of how each dollar will be spent. When the DoD submits a request for funds, it might tell Congress exactly how much money would be used to buy a particular kind of fighter plane. In another context, this level of specificity would merit the scarlet E; for a defense bill, it's business as usual. (Using the broadest definition, you could say that all defense spending is "earmarked.")

The Congressional Research Service—which has issued reports on earmarks going back to 1994—narrows its definition depending on the context. It considers a defense spending item to be an earmark only if Congress adds money to the department's request "at a level of specificity below the normal line item level." For other kinds of spending, the CRS considers any specific item an earmark, whether it originates in Congress or in the original budget proposal from the White House. By contrast, the group Citizens Against Government Waste never considers "executive earmarks" when it makes its tally of pork spending. Its numbers include only those specific items that were added by members of Congress.

You can draw another line by looking at whether a given spending item even shows up in the text of an appropriations bill. The appropriations and conference committees can slide earmarks into the reports that accompany the final bill. Since the other lawmakers don't get the chance to amend these reports, they can't vote on these earmarks individually. (In theory, these hidden earmarks don't carry any authority, since they're not in the official language of the statute. But a government agency that ignores an earmark may pay the price in the next budget cycle.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste.

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