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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

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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 says. 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 7,396 earmarks in FY 2023, an increase of 43.9 percent from the previous year, at a cost of $26.1 billion, according to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). Since 1991, the organization has identified 124,212 earmarks costing $437.5 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 explains. “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, according to 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 were banned in the House in 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 says. 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 adds. “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 says. “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?

    After an 11-year moratorium, earmarks were revived for FY 2022, first in a favorable vote by House Democrats on February 26, 2021, then by House Republicans in March 2021, and then by Senate Democrats, who followed suit in April 2021. Senate Republicans voted to uphold the moratorium on April 21, 2021, but the agreement was nonbinding, and many of them received earmarks, CAGW reports. These arrangements were maintained for earmarks in FY 2023.

    Earmarks 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 says. “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.

    Republicans in the U.S. House, now in control, are limiting the types of projects earmarks can be spent on. House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, has banned earmarks in annual appropriations bills for several departments and spending bills, except for 0.5 percent of discretionary spending, Route Fifty reports.

    The move aims to prioritize higher-quality projects such as transportation infrastructure, water and sewer improvements, rural development, and public safety. Critics argue that earmarks often fund local projects that should be the responsibility of local governments and can be wasteful.

    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, says Kate Ackley, a former reporter at 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.

    As federal agencies, Congress, and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget work on an appropriations framework for the upcoming 2024 fiscal year, government affairs professionals must act quickly to stay ahead of the curve and make sure their issues are represented fairly.

    To build and execute an effective government relations strategy, you need to stay on top of the relevant legislation, deep dive into the news and analysis, and know who your key stakeholders are. FiscalNote’s 360-degree approach to issues management gives you all the tools you need to successfully plan and execute your government affairs strategy. Pursue the opportunities and mitigate the risk arising from legislation and regulation around the world in the most trusted policy monitoring platform.

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