The Congressional Earmark

Two student readings examine the practice of earmarking in bills and the connection between earmark spending and political campaign cash.

Unknown to many Americans, congressional "earmarks" have cost us billions of dollars in unaccountable spending. The two student readings below examine this practice in the House and the Senate and the reasons for it. Students will learn that there is more to how a bill becomes a law than what we typically learn in school, and they will see the connections between earmark spending and political campaign cash.

Students might also be interested in "The K Street Strategy" on this website. It deals with what has become a major Washington D.C. industry-lobbying, the bedtime partner of the earmark.


Student Reading 1:

Earmark spending and campaign cash

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of the receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."
—U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8

Why would an Alaskan congressman, Dan Young, be interested in a proposed highway interchange at Coconut Road near Ft. Myers, Florida? He was interested enough to earmark $10 million, in an unrelated congressional bill, to fund this interchange—which Florida officials themselves didn't even want.

Congressman Young's interest was probably stimulated by the $40,000 campaign contribution he received from a Florida developer who owned 4,000 acres along Coconut Road. The developer essentially paid Young $10 an acre in the hopes that the congressman would support a highway interchange that would greatly increase the value of his property.

Webster's definition of earmark (as a verb) is "to designate [funds] for a specific use or owner." In the House of Representatives or Senate, an earmark (as a noun) is an add-on to a bill that usually has nothing to do with that bill and appropriates money for a specific project or recipient.

Or, as television journalist Bill Moyers said, "Think of earmarks as individual pipelines of public funds allowing members [of Congress] to designate for whatever purpose they choose, without hearings or oversight." (, 7/27/07)

Congressional earmarks, rarely used in the past, have become explosively popular. In transportation appropriation bills, for example, there were two earmarks in the 1950s, but in 2005 there were 13,997 earmarks worth $27.3 billion. These earmarks authorized money for projects as unrelated as $200,000 for a deer avoidance system in Weedsport, NY, and $3 million for dust control on rural Arkansas roads. In 2006, there were 9,963 earmarks worth $29 billion. ( Public Citizen News, September-October, 2007) By the summer of 2007, Congress members had filed 32,684 earmarks for House approval. (Sunlight Foundation of the Center for Media and Democracy,
Recent congressional earmarks included $2.6 million for a new grape genetics research center at Cornell University; $738,000 to study cancer-fighting chemicals in raspberries; $100,000 for a Kansas prison museum; and $50,000 for a National Mule and Packers Museum in Bishop, California.

Senator Tim Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, calls earmarks "the gateway to federal spending addiction."

Legislators frequently argue that they know what's best for their district or state and that an earmark speeds the approval process of a needed project. Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat, argued, "I obtained an earmark to rebuild a bridge that not only was rated as deficient but also was identified by the Department of Homeland Security as a major evacuation route in case of a terrorist attack on Chicago." ("Don't Get Rid of Earmarks," New York Times, 8/24/07)

But it's clear that legislators have other powerful reasons for including earmarks in their bills. Through an earmark, they can:

  • get additional votes for a larger bill to which an earmark is attached (you help me by voting for this bill and I'll help you by including this earmark for your district or state)
  • hand out tax dollars to family and staff members, campaign donors and other special interest individuals and groups without being held accountable
  • fund projects that special interest groups want and then reap the reward in the form of votes and campaign cash from those groups. A notable example: Representative John Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is head of the defense appropriations committee in the House. The committee was responsible for 26 earmarks in three years that were worth "scores of millions, with $413,250 eventually flowing into the Murtha coffers," according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. ( New York Times editorial, 9/27/07)

Congressman Randy Cunningham, a California Republican, is now in prison for taking millions in cash and gifts for inserting earmarks desired by a military contractor into bills.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have grown used to the earmark. Many have grown to love it. But others were prominent in a campaign against earmark excesses that led to some reform. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said, "Earmarks aren't inherently evil. But they have grown to such an extent that there hasn't been any oversight."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What does an "earmark" mean to members of the House or Representatives or Senate? Why are they so popular?

3. What are Congressman Emanuel's reasons for supporting earmarks?

4. What are other reasons that lawmakers favor earmarks? What makes them a suspicious practice?


Student Reading 2:

Recent earmark reforms

Congress has passed a new set of rules governing earmarks and lobbyists, including the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. Now legislators must:

  • Disclose the name of the sponsor and intended recipients and purpose of an earmark and post that information on the internet 48 hours before Congress approves a new tax appropriation.
  • Certify that neither the lawmaker nor his or her family will benefit financially from an earmark.
  • Refuse any gift from a lobbyist or from a group that employs lobbyists, including privately financed travel.
  • Forfeit their pension if they are convicted of crimes committed during their service and related to official duties.

In addition:

  • Any senator may remove an earmark that has not been deliberated or voted upon in committee or on the Senate floor.
  • Candidates for office, political party committees, and leadership political action committees must report semi-annually to the Federal Election Committee on contributions bundled by a lobbyist that exceed $15,000 in a six-month period. (Current campaign finance laws prohibit anyone from contributing more than $2300 to a candidate during an election period. But to curry favor with candidates, lobbyists collect such sums from a number of people—a practice called "bundling"—and then contribute the entire amount, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars or even $100,000 or more.)

Lobbyists must:

  • File semi-annual reports of contributions made to a Congress member, federal candidate, political action committee, or political party.
  • Pay $200,000 if they fail to comply with lobbying laws and serve up to five years in prison.
  • Refrain from giving any gifts to lawmakers and their staffs.

In addition, former senators and senior executive personnel must wait for two years before becoming lobbyists. (This rule is intended to curb what has become a "revolving door," as members of congress retire to lobby their former colleagues.)

Critics of earmarks, conflicts of interest and excesses of lobbyists supported these reforms but argued that others are necessary because, they say, the new rules:

  • Do not sufficiently slow the rush of senators and representatives into lobbying careers after they leave office.
  • Do not state clearly how the new rules will be enforced.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are the connections among an earmark, a lawmaker and a lobbyist?

3. What do the new rules suggest about past congressional practices? How do the new earmark rules aim to prevent the possibility for corruption?

4. Why do you suppose that so many members of congress become lobbyists? If you don't know, how might you find out?

5. Why is the lack of clarity about enforcement an issue for critics of the new rules?


For inquiry and citizenship

Have individual students and/or small groups investigate the way their own senators or representative handle earmarks. This might involve:

  • Calling or sending emails and/or letters to the legislator(s) with questions regarding earmarks
  • Determining if earmarks are linked to campaign contributions or any other questionable practices
  • Reporting to the class about their findings
  • Preparing a final report about student findings and conclusions to share with lawmakers

Useful sources:

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: