Here's a question from Robert Spahle of Las Vegas, Nev.:
What is the difference between earmarks and pork and who controls the addition of these to otherwise sound legislation?
There is no one better to handle this than Peter Overby, NPR's money, power and influence correspondent. I pitched it to him, and he hit it out of the park:
This goes straight to the imprecision of political jargon. Earmarks and pork are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Roughly speaking, pork is about content (by definition wasteful, and usually in someone else's district), while earmarks are about process (nefarious, at least in current usage).
Pork is short for pork barrel. Wordsmith William Safire said it began before the Civil War, likening lawmakers plundering budget funds with slaves rushing a barrel of salt pork put out by the master. Just lovely. Earmark is less loaded. Loosely, it's a provision that's added to a tax or spending bill by one or a few lawmakers. But one champion of earmark reform, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has defined it more narrowly, as a provision snuck into the bill without a committee hearing or other public discussion. Exhibit A here might be the earmark for a road project in Florida, which Rep. Don Young of Alaska added to a bill after passage.
As for controlling earmarks and pork in legislation: This is the lookout of committee chairs, subcommittee chairs and congressional leaders. For most of our history, the provisions were opaquely written -- applying to any corporation which filed its incorporation papers in New York City on Dec. 2, 1906, to make up one example. Then journalists and reformers started digging out the earmarks put in by the "Cardinals," the chairmen of the Appropriations committee and its subcommittees. Numbers skyrocketed in the late 1990s, when Republican leaders in the House began using earmarks much more liberally (yes), bartering with all GOP members for votes on legislation. Democrats point out that they have cut the number of earmarks significantly, and that's true, as far as it goes.
Members of Congress point out, and fairly, that the White House can earmark money too, in its budget requests. As Ken likes to say in another context, it's all politics.