Do Earmarks Matter?

Making fun of earmarked Congressional spending is easy, feel-good entertainment. In this regard Sen. John McCain‘s Twitter feed, in which he reels off outrageous examples of pork-barrel spending (we especially liked “$300,000 for Texas A&M for ‘Texas Height Modernization’“) is a laugh factory. But is the war on pork a distraction from a larger problem? In 2008, Congress earmarked $17.2 billion for special projects. That amounts to less than one half of one percent of all Federal spending last year. The figure is less than NASA’s 2008 budget ($17.3 billion) and less than half of the $35 billion the country spent on foreign aid last year (is there a “Finland Height Modernization” program?). A recent paper found almost no correlation between the amount of pork in a given year and the size of that year’s deficit. The authors conclude: “While increasing levels of pork may be symptomatic of a larger government spending problem, they are not the underlying cause.” [%comments]

Jason S

I don't think that the pork is the problem so much as it is the symptom of the problem.. In most cases the projects and pork spending amounts to little more than hush money for members of Congress. When a bill comes up that someone doesn't like the way you get their vote is you throw some pork their way. While the amount of the earmarked spending isn't very much in total it covers up the large very expensive bills that get passed because of this hush money.
Earmarks were originally designed so that projects and bills to small to validate having their own bills could be tacked on to larger bills for ease of use.
On another note it does strike me as rather sad that we now look at over $17 billion dollars of wasted spending a year as nothing important. In fact, in the current health care bill it would be a rounding error.

William G

"The authors conclude: “While increasing levels of pork may be symptomatic of a larger government spending problem, they are not the underlying cause.”"

In much the same manner as global warming, I'd like to propose a geoengineered solution. It's similar in that it doesn't matter what the origin of global warming is, we can fix it another way (by spraying stuff in the air).

So it doesn't matter if pork barrel spending is the cause of the problem or a symptom, the geoengineered solution fixes both...

I propose that we raze Washington DC and fill it in with dirt.

Rich K

Earmarks amount to about $50 for every single American. I'm under no illusion that eliminating earmarks doesn't make a dent in the deficit nor in the amount of taxes I pay/owe. I'll even concede that some earmarks may actually be well spent. However, I'm also under no illusion that giving that $50 back to every American is probably a far better use of that money that lining the pockets of the well connected.

I know a number of people where even just $50 can make a world of difference.

Would you mind if I "only" robbed $50 from you each year?


A lengthy quote from PJ O'Rourke's "Parliament of Whores":

This is the first mistake made by most budget critics. They page through the minutiae in the "Notes and Appendices to the U.S. Budget," sifting the "Detailed Budget Estimates by Agency" section until they come up with something like the Department of the Interior's Helium Fund. Which really exists:

The Helium Act Amendments of 1960, Public Law 86-777 (50 U.S.C. 167), authorized activities necessary to provide sufficient helium to meet the current and foreseeable future needs of essential government activities.

Then the budget critics grow very indignant or start making dull, budget-critic-type helium jokes.

The Helium Fund is amazingly stupid, even by government standards, but it only costs around $19 million -- .0015 percent of 1991 federal spending. [This guide] would be as large as the budget itself if I tried to balance that budget by eliminating Helium Funds. And, if you think about it, running a Helium Fund is just the kind of thing our politicians should be doing. It's much less expensive and harmful to the nation than most of what they do, plus, with any luck, they'll float away.



With a current population of 300 million, $17 billion in spending means every man, woman, and child paid out $51 for these earmarks. For my family of 3, that figures climbs to $153. All so that senators can be corrupt and retain the status quo.

Negligent spending will never be acceptable and is a by product of government itself.

Mark Brucker

In one area I know that earmarks have been identified as a source of significant inefficiency. Significant research indicates that money spent on roads is a poor investment. E.g., research by Cliff Winston at Brookings and others concluded that the economic benefits from highway investments is plummeting: from 17.6% annual return in the 70s to 4.9% in the 80s and to 1% in the 90s. The authors attribute this decline to several factors, including Congressional earmarks and failing to charge people appropriately for the costs they impose in using roads. We also know that expanding roads has many costs. Because expansions lead to so much more driving, there's more pollution, crashes, cost to drive, etc.
Chad Shirley and Clifford Winston, “Firm Inventory Behavior And The Returns From Highway Infrastructure Investments,” Journal of Urban Economics, Volume 55, Issue 2 (, March 2004, pp. 398-415.


G Lazman

Earmarks certainly can be a waste of money, although not all earmarks are for useless projects. On the other hand, I agree that earmarks are a miniscule part of the overall budget, and John McCain was disingenuous in his repeated assertions that eliminating earmarks would have a major impact toward solving the budget deficit. It made for nothing but a good sound bite and rallying cry.


Are you seriously going to pick on the 1% spent on foreign aid when American GDP (PPP) per capita is 400% of the global average? Another 1% would go a long way towards solving global hunger:

Benjamin Seghers

Earmarks don't create any spending. The money has already been authorized. The earmarks just dictate how it's spent. So it's the Congressperson's job to earmark it. If I don't earmark it for my district, someone else will for theirs. If no one does, then it goes in the hands of the executive, which is not the solution. That's how it works. The solution is not to end earmarks, but to cut down on authorized spending in the first place. Ending earmarks won't cut the deficit one bit.

Russell V

Earmarks are an entertaining whipping boy for those who wish to emphasize the inefficiency of government. In some cases this ridicule is justified, but of greater importance is the fact that earmark spending facilitates legislative compromise. In an era when the yawning partisan divide threatens any effort to govern down the middle, earmarks serve an important role in promoting practical rather than ideological governance.


It's not the amount that is the problem, it's the system that allows lawmakers to direct money to a specific pet project instead of letting the agency in question decide how to spend its own budget.

Gerti Hamilton

Earmarks are a symbol of what is wrong with our government. The kind of thinking that a few billion dollars aren't important shocks most Americans., and sneaking programs into legislation that a good part of the population would never vote for is unethical. Unfortunately, no matter how good a government program is, someone in Congress finds a way to distort it's purpose.


Suppose you knew your uncle would pay for the family vacation if you left it out of your budget. Wouldn't you be tempted to underfund vacations and fund other things instead?

It's naive to think that agencies are at the whim of Congress and don't know how to play these games.


I agree with everyone above that we ought to drastically cut earmarks for states and districts in which I do not reside....


I agree with those that pork is symptom rather than the disease. The real problem, I think, is that the members of congress have abdicated their duty to do what is best for the country and have instead agreed to use tax monies to fund their own re-election campaigns. If the projects that are funded are worthwhile they should be able to withstand the scrutiny of the congress and funding should be provided in a bill passed on its own merits.


Given the dollars presented in the original post, I'm having a beautiful day-dream: end earmarks, double NASA's budget, and enjoy the ripples from innovations that enhance life here on earth.

Eric M. Jones

The more one knows about an earmarked project the less one has to complain. Perhaps this is why titles, even deceptive title are such important things.

Check out your favorite reasons to complain:

My complaints are more we really need to be able to fight World War 2 over again? Do we really need to put ejection seats in advanced fighter aircraft?


"Texas Height Modernization" does sound silly and wasteful. But it isn't talking about human height. It's about making GPS units able to accurately pinpoint the elevation, not just latitude and longitude. That seems less wasteful to me.


$17.3 billion here and $17.3 billion there. Pretty soon it adds up to real money.

In other words - it all matters.


(To the last quote) Amen!