Defining an earmark

Definitions of what constitutes a congressional earmark vary widely. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines earmarks as “legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization.” The House and Senate call them provisions that are tailored to specific programs or locations outside the “formula-driven or competitive award process.” The White House’s Office of Management and Budget says earmarks are provisions that curtail “the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.”

No matter who is defining it, “earmark” has become a dirty word on Capitol Hill, conjuring up abuses where projects benefited few, such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. Last year, a congressionally imposed moratorium on earmarks went into effect, banning members from using legislation to direct money to specific projects or specific organizations in their districts. Last week, the Senate defeated a proposal to outlaw earmarks but extended the moratorium by a year.

Today, many lawmakers avoid using the word at all costs, while still trying to insert targeted spending provisions into bills. These days, such provisions are called by many names: “member directed spending,” “plus ups,” “budget enhancements,” “additions” and “programmatic adjustments.” Lawmakers also call agency officials directly and ask them, in the absence of any legislation, to put money toward specific projects. The practice is known as “phone-marking.”