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The Difference Between Earmark and Pork Barrel Spending & Why You Should Care

by Lydia Stowe, FiscalNote

Earmarks & pork barrel both involve spending for specific projects, but they aren't identical terms. Read our complete comparison of earmark & pork barrel and why you should care.

Earmark vs pork barrel

Earmarks and pork barrel spending are two very similar terms for allocating money to certain projects or events within government. The terms are often used interchangeably when it comes to Congressional spending, but they are not quite the same thing. However, earmarks and pork barrel spending have a long and controversial history within Congress (including a decade-long moratorium) and are now being revived and reformed. Read on to learn what this means for government relations professionals like yourself.

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What are Earmarks?

Earmarks are congressional spending directed toward a specific project in a specific city, state, or district, set aside for a particular project. Typically, a provision is written into a spending appropriations bill, directing funds to a specific recipient. Earmarks are very specific in how they can be used and the amount granted. These small appropriations can go toward a research grant, post office, bridge, or any other specific congressional district or project. 

It can be hard to tell what exactly an earmark is, said Casey Burgat, assistant professor and director of legislative affairs at The George Washington University. “Particularly in huge spending bills, everything looks like an earmark. What separates them from general spending is that it’s for a very targeted area,” he said. Earmarks are for a targeted purpose: a specific state, district, or project.  

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has created a detailed definition of earmarks. To be an earmark, an appropriation must meet at least one of their seven criteria, though 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.

Particularly in huge spending bills, everything looks like an earmark. What separates them from general spending is that it’s for a very targeted area.

Casey Burgat, Assistant Professor & Director of Legislative Affairs
The George Washington University

Congress appropriated 285 earmarks in 2021, at a cost of $16.8 billion, according to CAGW. Since 1991, the organization has identified 111,702 earmarks, totaling $392.5 billion. 

“Earmarks” have a negative connotation for many lawmakers, which is when the term is interchangeable with pork barrel spending. An example is the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska highlighting how this type of spending has been used to pay for projects that benefit few. The “Bridge to Nowhere,” formally known as the Gravina Island Bridge, was proposed to connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska with Gravina Island. The project was expected to cost more than $400 million and secured an earmark of $223 million. The bridge drew national attention, as many believed it was an example of wasted federal funds, and the project was ultimately scrapped 10 years later. 

What is Pork Barrel Spending?

Pork barrel spending is the allocation of federal funds to local projects or interest groups, at the congressperson’s discretion. Pork barrel spending occurs when funding for projects is approved based on personal relationships. Deals are often made “under the table” with special interest groups and the money generally benefits only one group of people.

“Pork barrel is the negative connotation of funds added to a bill as a means of greasing the skids or getting someone’s support that would have voted no without it,” Burgat explained. “It’s kind of the legislative equivalent of bribery. It’s something you care about that will turn your no into a yes.” Essentially, politicians trade favors to constituents or special interest groups in exchange for donations or votes.

An often-cited example of pork barrel spending is Hartselle City in Alabama, a small town that was awarded $250,000 for a city-wide Wi-Fi network in 2010 — a seemingly needless and expensive project. The project was funded by the federal government and was not supported by most locals.

How are Pork Barrel Spending and Earmarks Different?

Pork barrel is the negative connotation of funds added to a bill as a means of greasing the skids or getting someone’s support that would have voted no without it. It’s kind of the legislative equivalent of bribery.

Casey Burgat, Assistant Professor & Director of Legislative Affairs
The George Washington University

Many people use these terms interchangeably, but “pork barrel” is a colloquialism that refers to using government funds to move your agenda forward. 

Pork barrel spending is a “nebulous term” that can mean any number of things, said Sean Kennedy, director of policy and research at CAGW. “Pork barrel spending is in the eye of the beholder, but it can really be any spending that’s added in order to win votes.” Earmarks, on the other hand, have a more clear definition and do not carry a solely negative connotation like pork barrel spending.

Why Were Congressional Earmarks Banned?

Earmarks have been banned in the House since 2011, when a Republican majority ended the practice of inserting special projects in spending bills because of concerns about corruption, according to Roll Call. Critics were concerned they allowed for special favors and that limits on earmarks were not strict enough. 

Earmarks were banned because “the public was convinced that earmarks were blowing up the deficit and we were spending too much money on things that didn’t matter,” Burgat said. They saw earmarks as “a way to legally bribe someone to vote for something that they otherwise wouldn’t.” This perception caused earmarks to become so unpopular that they were outlawed as a way to “clean up politics to say we’re not bribing our legislators with taxpayer dollars anymore.”  

Many people believed earmarks were being overused and that there were not enough restrictions imposed on them. “It was the Wild West for a long time in D.C. in terms of earmarking and the complete lack of transparency,” Kennedy said. “There were a huge amount of earmarks every year and very limited transparency in terms of who was receiving the funding and who was requesting it.” There were many examples of corruption and scandals as a result of politicians corruptly using earmarks — or in this case, pork barrel spending. 

From 2008 to 2010, some reforms were made to the process. Every member of Congress had to have their name attached to the earmarks they requested, “which seems so obvious, right?” Kennedy said. “But they weren’t doing that before. That allowed us a lot of insight and made it easier to connect those dots.” 

After this era, Congress imposed a moratorium on earmarks, which banned creating legislation directing money to specific projects or organizations. CAGW was still finding earmarks being created during this era, according to their definition, but the number went way down, according to Kennedy. “According to the definition of earmarks by members of Congress, those bills in the last decade haven’t included earmarks,” he said. “They’ve changed their definition of an earmark often. [CAGW] has used the same one since 1991, so in our definition we were still finding earmarks.” 

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Why Have They Been Brought Back?

The moratorium on Congressional earmarks has been lifted as of 2021, now with additional rules in place to make the process more transparent. Earmarks now must include the exact location that will receive the funds and the legislator requesting the funds must have their name attached to the request. “At least the names are back in there, so there is going to be a level of transparency,” Kennedy said. “But it’s also going to mean that the number of them and the cost is going to explode, as well as the possibility of increased corruptive activity.” 

Earmarks have returned to Congress, rebranded with a new name: “community-project funding” in an attempt to “preempt all the complaints from constituents and make them more palatable,” according to Burgat. While Democrats requested an end to the moratorium on earmarks far more than Republicans, there was a “big push to bring earmarks back from both sides of the aisle,” Burgat said. “They’re a really good way to help people for very specific reasons.” Earmarks can allow members of Congress to advocate for their constituents’ specific needs, and legislators appreciate that earmarks incentivize people to go along with a bill. 

As earmarks return to Congress, more reforms are needed, Kennedy believes. “Members of Congress have gone to jail over this, and those scandals are coming down the pike at some point,” he said. With many new members of Congress over the last decade, plenty of them are unfamiliar with the earmarks system, how it worked before, and the pitfalls of an open system of earmarking. Kennedy also says earmarks still meet “the bare threshold of being transparent” and that they should be more accessible and easily searchable online.

How to Leverage Earmarks in Your Government Relations Strategy

Government relations professionals need to build strong relationships with Congress and can even use earmarks to their advantage to help prioritize their projects. Before the moratorium, earmarks were a core part of lobbying efforts, said Kate Ackley, senior staff writer at CQ Roll Call. Now they have more restrictions and “are subject to strict transparency and accountability rules,” according to the House Committee on Appropriations website. For example, there is a ban on directing community project funding, or earmarks, to for-profit organizations. Funding can only be requested for state or local governmental grantees and eligible nonprofits. 

Opportunities for nonprofit organizations to receive this funding are available, however, provided they show evidence of community support. A list of requests for earmarks is available on the House Committee on Appropriations site, and Ackley suggests government relations teams look at these to get an idea of “the kinds of projects that members are willing to put their necks out for.” This can provide inspiration for building a government relations strategy that uses community project funding. Leveraging a tool such as CQ Federal can be extremely valuable for tracking earmarks.

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