The Ban & Return of Earmarks. Is it all Wasteful Spending?

Table of Contents


What are Earmarks? 

Earmarks refer to funds designated for specific projects and programs in the Congressional spending budget that bypasses the Constitutional appropriations process. Thus, instead of the funds being a part of the lump sum that goes to the relevant Federal agency, the money goes directly to a project that typically benefits the legislator and their communities. 

While the House of Representatives and the Senate have slight differences in their definitions, according to the Congressional Research Services (CRS), both branches of Congress “…emphasize that any congressionally directed spending, tax benefit, or tariff benefit be considered an earmark if it…benefit[s] a specific entity or state, locality, or congressional district other than through a statutory or administrative formula or competitive award process.”

Do earmarks in public finance enable legislators to sneak in their pet projects to the annual Congressional budget, wasting taxpayer money? Is it a way for government officials to satisfy the lobbyists and their big corporate employers that finance election campaigns? Or can earmarking help prevent deadlocks between political parties and get specific citizens the support or programming they need? 

As you can probably imagine, earmarking has long been a topic of highly contentious debate. Proponents argue that government officials know their state or city the best and, therefore, have identified a serious need that a Federal agency might not have properly recognized. Critics claim that the practice enables wasteful and inefficient spending (a.k.a. pork barrel spending) that bypasses a more merit-based allocation process. 

After a supposed ‘ban’ or ‘moratorium’ on earmarks by Congress, they appear to have made a comeback. The Zero Theft Movement works to eradicate the rigged parts of the economy to let the ethical and healthy parts flourish. When the government properly uses taxpayer money, even if it’s for an earmark, citizens should be benefiting. Republican, democrat, it doesn’t matter. We need our government to spend our money effectively and efficiently. 

Leading up to the Earmark Ban

According to CNN, earmarks have long been a part of the U.S. legislative process, but between 1995 and 2006, the number of Congressional earmarks grew exponentially. The news outlet interviewed Steve Ellis, vice president for nonpartisan watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, who explained the exponential growth: “That’s partly because lawmakers began to use earmarks as a way to help incumbents who risked losing re-election, Ellis said. And part of it was a feedback loop: as earmarks grew, so did the ranks of lobbyists to secure them.”

Before the earmark moratorium, the practice actually came under strict(er) regulation after three lawmakers came under fire during President George W. Bush’s second term. 

Three scandals

  1. In 2005, Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) famously earmarked more than $230 million for the Gravina Island Bridge. The bridge would link Ketchikan, Alaska (<9000 residents) to the airport on Gravina Island (50 residents). Outraged onlookers called it a “bridge to nowhere.” Admittedly, that’s a hefty sum for fewer than 10,000 people. Even if public works projects regularly cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But after considerable back and forth and deliberation on alternative options, the project was canceled in 2015 in favor of a ferry service instead.
  2. That same year, the San Diego Union-Tribune published its investigation into the alleged bribery and tax evasion of former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.). Cunningham was eventually sentenced to 100 months (8 years and 4 months) to prison after admitting that he’d received at least $2.4 million in bribes. According to the Department of Justice news release just linked, “Cunningham further admitted that in return for these bribes he used his public office and took other official action to influence the appropriations of funds and the execution of government contracts in ways that would benefit two of the co-conspirators, who were the majority owners of defense contracting companies.

In 2006, former Congressman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The DOJ press release states, “…Ney admitted that he corruptly solicited and accepted things of value from Abramoff and his lobbyists – including international and domestic trips, meals and drinks, concert and sporting tickets and tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions and in-kind contributions such as free fundraisers – with the intent to be influenced and induced to take official actions. Ney admitted that the actions he agreed to take, and took, to benefit Abramoff, his lobbyists, and their clients, included opposing legislation at Abramoff’s request, the insertion of statements into the Congressional Record at Scanlon’s request, and supporting an application of a license for a contract to install wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives.”

In 2019, the U.S. spent $586 billion on government contracts. Do you think that federal agencies and contracted businesses are allocating the funds efficiently and with minimal criminal activity? If they aren’t, are taxpayers getting ripped off? See whether the Zero Theft community has uncovered in this area…

The push for reform 

After a string of high-profile scandals and court cases, a bipartisan contingent of senators and the Bush White House jointly advocated for the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007. The legislation mandates lawmakers to report all earmarked funds, the sponsors, and the recipients. But it appears the legislation did not go far enough, as a few years later, the Republican senators successfully established a Congressional moratorium on earmarks in 2011. President Barack Obama supported the move, vowing to veto any legislation including earmarks. 

But did the legislation and moratorium actually make a substantial difference in earmarking?

The Case for Earmarking

It bears mentioning that earmarks in U.S. public finance definitely have a great many advocates (e.g. The Atlantic journalist Jonathan Rauch, the Congressional Institute, Vox reporter Jonathan Allen). The cases for earmarks tend to include the following points:

  • The moratorium on earmarking did very little and perhaps made the process more opaque than before
  • Earmarks can help lawmakers strike deals and get out of legislative gridlocks
  • The cost of earmarks does not actually take up much of an already designated budget

Ineffective Ban

Nonpartisan independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO) argues that the 2011 moratorium had “major loopholes, quite readily circumvented by Members and staff in Congress.” Instead, the group believes that the earmarking process has just become opaque, stating “it is hard, if not impossible, to identify who is doing the porking on Capitol Hill, what it is actually for, and what it will really cost.”

To provide further evidence that earmarks never actually went away from public finance, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) claims that “there were [on average] 109 earmarks costing $3.7 billion annually between FYs 2012 and 2017. But, like everything else in Congress, the restraint only lasted for a short period of time. Over the past four years [2018-2021], legislators added an average of 268 earmarks costing $15.7 billion.” 


Some have argued that allowing for earmarks can help urgent bills (e.g. CARES Act) get passed quicker and end Congressional gridlocks. There’s an old political practice known as logrolling, a term that’s basically ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ between lawmakers. If two legislators have their respective earmarks, they can agree to support each others’ projects. 

Whether logrolling is problematic does deserve debate. Regardless, earmarks serve as a powerful negotiating tool that can make the legislative process more efficient. 

Vox interviewed Josh Huder, a Georgetown University political scientist, who stated: “What [lawmakers] can do is say, ‘Oh, you won’t get on that committee assignment that you have been looking for; ‘You aren’t going to be on Ways and Means. I know you wanted to do that; ‘Hey, that bill I was going to bring forward for you next week, we can take that away.’ They have a lot of things they could do to punish, not a lot of things they can do to sweeten the bill.”

Many have also argued that the representatives of a district or state likely know the needs of their residents more than anyone else. Those earmarks provide these officials with the money to actually address the biggest needs of their area. 

Cost of earmarks

Slate Magazine found that earmarks cost only about $16 billion a year (~1% of the annual federal budget). That estimate is much more than CAGW’s. Remember that what one person perceives as pork or wasteful spending doesn’t mean everyone agrees. While earmarks may make it into omnibus spending bills, the relatively small cost of this spending is more than offset by a smooth(er) legislative process via logrolling.

One of the largest public works projects in U.S. history, the Big Dig ended up costing $15 billion ($24 billion counting interest on the debt). And state taxpayers would eventually have to foot nearly half of the bill!

Do you think the Big Dig is an example of wasteful government spending? See what the Zero Theft community has discovered about the case…

The Case Against Earmarks

john mccain on earmarks

From @SenJohnMcCain on Twitter: My friend Senator Tom Coburn rightfully called #earmarks the gateway drug to corruption & overspending in Washington. That’s why earmarks were banned & that’s why they shouldn’t be brought back from the dead. 

The case against earmarks in public finance boils down to two points: that earmarks lead to unethical practices, and that they enable unnecessary spending.

In regard to the first point, you have already seen at least two examples of how lawmakers allegedly abused their authority in exchange for money, favors, political support, and the like. This is how you create a Pay to Play system, where rent-seeking officials look to trade their influence for the corrupt among the wealthy and businesses to get tax breaks, favorable legislation, and regulation, etc. Even with the ban in place, earmarks still have found their way into legislation. That suggests that we have lawmakers who refuse to adhere to the ban they set themselves.  

Former Senator Coburn, mentioned in the tweet above, penned an article on the myths and realities of earmarks. He addresses the unnecessary spending point, writing: “It’s true that earmarks themselves represent a tiny portion of the budget, but a small rudder can help steer a big ship, which is why I’ve long described earmarks as the gateway drug to spending addiction in Washington. No one can deny that earmarks like the Cornhusker Kickback have been used to push through extremely costly and onerous bills. Plus, senators know that as the number of earmarks has exploded so has overall spending. In the past decade, the size of government has doubled while Congress approved more than 90,000 earmarks.”

The Return of Earmarks

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress—a bipartisan group of six Democratic and six Republican lawmakers—made 97 recommendations on improving the government. One recommendation called for the return of earmarks in public finance, referred to as a “Congressionally-directed program.” 

“Reduce dysfunction in the annual budgeting process through the establishment of a congressionally-directed program that calls for transparency and accountability, and that supports meaningful and transformative investments in local communities across the United States. The program will harness the authority of Congress under Article One of the Constitution to appropriate federal dollars.”

So what’s the difference this time around? 

According to Congressional news provider Roll Call, the Select Committee has proposed the following additions to the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act:

  • A 10 earmark request cap per fiscal year. Note that these are requests, not guarantees. Lawmakers must provide (1) their reasons why the project is essential for their communities and (2) their communities support the earmarks requested
  • A requirement that members must post the request, justifications, etc. online on a public portal at the same time they submit their proposal to the Appropriations Committee
  • Certification that neither the member making the request nor their family members have any financial interest in a particular earmark

Further protections could be proposed and implemented in the future, but that’s the information currently available at this time. 

Do you think Earmarks can Rig the Economy?

In 2016, a poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov found that 63% of Americans approved of the 2011 earmark ban. 59% of respondents believed that the practice of earmarks was “unacceptable.”

Ultimately, no totalizing effort will snuff out earmarks. And in some instances, with good intentions and planning, lawmakers can efficiently address a need or problem in their communities. There are, however, pork projects that simply should not receive funding. The recommendations of the Select Committee definitely has the potential to make each earmark request and eventual project transparent, allowing the public, watchdogs, and other government officials to prevent wasteful spending from occurring.

Of course, opinion will differ in many cases, but isn’t a democracy about going with what the majority rules?

The Zero Theft Movement, along with our growing community, operates exactly in that fashion, as a democractic platform designed for you to protect the ethical parts of our economy by identifying cases of corporate crime, wasteful government spending, antitrust violations, and everything in between. Citizens publish their investigations into potential rigged areas, and the public votes on (1) whether theft is occurring in that area and (2) the best estimate for the amount stolen if theft is occurring. 

We can hold the bad actors accountable only if we have hard evidence.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you.

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Beyond earmarks…

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