NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Earmarks For Favored Projects

April 2, 1999

A type of pork-barrel spending favored by members of Congress wastes billions of dollars and undermines federalism, say Heritage Foundation analysts. Called earmarks, this type of pork usually appears in appropriations or authorization bills and requires money to spent on specific projects, ignoring funding formulas that allocate federal assistance to the states to spend on their own priorities.

Between fiscal year (FY) 1985 and 1999, spending growth for annual earmarks increased substantially faster --between 25 to 1,000 times faster in most cases -- than inflation-adjusted federal domestic discretionary spending. And the growth appears to be accelerating -- for instance, the number of earmarks in five appropriations bills doubled between FY 1998 and FY 1999.

  • Nearly 500 earmarks in the Military Construction program will consume 42 percent of such spending.
  • The Energy and Water appropriations bill for fiscal year 1999 contained over 1,800 separate earmarks.
  • Transportation earmarks could absorb as much as 10 percent of federal surface transportation spending.
  • The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century ("TEA 21") enacted in 1998, had 1,850 earmarked projects, compared to fewer than 200 in the 1987 transportation bill.

Highway earmarks, formerly called "demonstration projects," were retitled "high priority" projects in TEA 21. These marginal projects usually require matching local funds; however, half the highway earmarks go unfunded due to lack of local and state matching money. Yet rather than turn down these projects and risk losing the associated federal funding, states usually accept them.

For instance, in 1996 Pennsylvania found that approximately 27.5 percent of its budget for highways and bridges -- including both state and federal funds -- was for specific projects earmarked by Congress. For major highway construction projects, the percentage was 84 percent.

Source: Ronald D. Utt, "How Congressional Earmarks And Pork- Barrel Spending Undermine State And Local Decisionmaking," Backgrounder No. 1266, April 2, 1999, Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002, (202) 546- 4400.


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