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What Is An Earmark?

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Definition: Earmarks are funds provided by the Congress for specific projects or programs in such a manner that the allocation (a) circumvents a merit-based or competitive allocation process; (b) applies to a very limited number of individuals or entities; or (c) otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to independently manage the agency budget. Thus, an earmark circumvents the appropriations process, as outlined in the Constitution, where Congress grants a lump sum of money to a Federal agency each year and leaves the management of that money to the Executive Branch.

The term is derogatory; possible beneficiaries might include research projects, demonstration projects, parks, laboratories, academic grants or business contracts.

The key difference between an earmark and a general budget line is the specificity of the recipient, which is usually someone or something in a specific Congressman's district or a Senator's home state.

Congress includes earmarks in both appropriation and authorization bills OR in report language (the committee reports that accompanies reported bills and the joint explanatory statement that accompanies a conference report). Because earmarks can be tucked away in report language, the process is not transparent (easily identified by constituents).

However, tax breaks that specifically reference a recipient or pet projected are also sometimes called earmarks, because they satisfy characteristic (b) above.
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