Slate's Explainer: Federal Budget 'Earmarks'

The House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate continue to hammer out details of a federal budget for the coming fiscal year — and a budget "earmark" is a word we'll be hearing more of in the news. But what does it mean? Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains how an "earmark" can add to the cost of a final budget deal.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The new buzz word in Washington these days: earmarks. Congress has earmarked $29 billion for pork barrel projects this year. That's according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The House Appropriations Committee has its own slightly more modest number, $17 billion worth of earmarks. Well, either way, that's a lot of money for something that not a lot of people can define.

What exactly is an earmark? Here's an Explainer from Slate's Andy Bowers.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Senior Editor, Slate): No one can agree on the precise definition. In general, the word earmark refers to any element of a spending bill that allocates money for a very specific thing, a given project, say, or a certain institution. For example, when Congress funds the National Park Service as a whole, no one considers that an earmark. But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward preserving a single building, definitely an earmark. Some earmarks are easy to spot, like this year's half million dollar grant to the Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina.

But just because an expenditure is specific doesn't make it an earmark. Defense spending bills, for example, come with very detailed accounting of how each dollar will be spent. When the Defense Department requests funds it might tell Congress exactly how much would be used to buy a particular kind of fighter plane. Using the broadest definition, you could say that all defense spending is earmarked.

Another form of earmark is one that doesn't even show up in the main text of an appropriations bill. Congressional committees can slide earmarks into the reports that accompany a final piece of legislation. In theory, these hidden earmarks don't carry any authority since they're not in the official language of the statute. But a government agency that ignores this kind of earmark may pay the price in the next budget cycle.

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor. And that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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