What’s An Earmark?

What’s an earmark? In general, it is a provision inserted in the text of a Congressional bill or report that allocates money or a tax benefit for a specific project, program, or organization, circumventing a merit-based or competitive allocation process.

There are many reasons to be “against earmarks.” Earmarks provide federal funding for projects benefiting only a state or local interest, or a private company, university or non-profit. In other words, most earmark-funded projects do not benefit the nation as a whole — though the “giving” of an earmark by a Member of Congress certainly benefits that Member.

While spending on earmarks may be a small percentage of the overall federal budget, the dollar amount and number of earmarks (over 9,000 earmarks totaling over $15 billion last year alone) is still quite large. And this is saying nothing of the fact that the 535 Members of the House and Senate last year requested over 40,000 earmarks!

Some lawmakers erroneously claim that earmarks do “not increase federal spending by even one penny,” but that’s unquestionably false: earmarks directly increase the debt. More than ever, during this time of historic budget deficits and a soaring national debt, earmarks must and should be eliminated.

The process of earmarking is yet another result of our broken system of government – and it has eroded American’s trust in Congress.

To learn more, browse our recommended reading section. Earmarks are all around us and cost every single American taxpayer money that could be better spent by us — because it’s our money.


Earmarks are so common now that this arcane term was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2009. Here are a few official definitions:

Office of Management & Budget (OMB): Funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction (whether in statutory text, report language, or other communication) circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.

Congress: Any expenditure requested by a lawmaker, intended for a specific state, district or entity, and outside the usual administrative process. Click here for the Senate’s earmark rule (PDF) and here for the House of Representative’s earmarks rule (PDF). The Congressional Research Service (PDF) uses a different definition of an earmark for each spending bill it analyzes.

Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS): Legislative provisions that set aside funds within an account for a specific program, project, activity, institution, or location. These measures normally circumvent merit-based or competitive allocation processes and appear in spending authorization, tax and tariff bills.

Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW): CAGW also calls this ‘pork barrel spending’. It is a line-item in an appropriations or authorization bill that designates funds for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures. CAGW uses seven criteria for identifying pork-barrel spending (all meet at least one of CAGW’s seven criteria, but most satisfy at least two):

  • Requested by only one chamber of Congress;
  • Not specifically authorized;
  • Not competitively awarded;
  • Not requested by the President;
  • Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;
  • Not the subject of congressional hearings; or,
  • Serves only a local or special interest.

To learn more, we invite you to browse the following sections of our website:



Taxpayers Connected:

Our national debt is  
$ 00 00 , 000 000 , 000 000 , 000 000 , 000 000
and each American Taxpayer owes $119,236 of it.