Controversial earmarks always make for sensational headlines, usually casting a politician in a negative light. Even though the media often focuses on these scandals, politicians keep trying to put them in legislation, either hoping no one will notice or at least not mind too much. Meaningful earmark reform is something many Washington watchdog groups want, but Congress failed to adopt a ban on all earmarks. Why is this type of funding so controversial, and where has it gone wrong in the past?

Key Takeaways

  • Earmarks are provisions put into an appropriation or spending bill that funnels money to a project favored by a politician.
  • Although many that come to public attention are often tied to scandals, earmarks aren't illegal.
  • Rep. Duke Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for funneling money to military contractors in exchange for bribes.
  • Some earmarks are more comical than scandalous including funding for Sparta's Teapot Museum and Florida Atlantic University's research on drunk mice.

What Is an Earmark?

An earmark is a provision put into an appropriation or spending bill that funnels money to a specific project favored by a politician. This is done to ingratiate a politician to a powerful group of people or to ensure an incumbent's re-election in their home state or district. The term earmarking has become a more polite synonym for pork barrel legislation.

Most people call into question the lack of transparency related to earmarks and the backroom dealings that put them in legislation in order to entice a politician to vote for a particular bill. That's because the earmarks we hear about are usually tied to some sort of scandal, making the whole process very shady. The controversies may make it seem like they are illegal. In fact, they are not. Although they may not be illegal, there are cases involving kickbacks, making the quid pro quo criminal.

Despite this, earmarks can be powerful tools, often wielded by the heads of powerful congressional committees. Inserting earmarks in spending bills is certainly a way to get things done amongst Washington gridlock, but it too often leads to uncompetitive bids and a lot of waste. That's why watchdog groups are always looking to out the worst offenders.

While adding earmarks to spending bills can help get things done, they can lead to a lot of waste.

Here are some of the more famous or infamous, earmarks. But this is this, by no means, a conclusive list.

The Bridge to Nowhere

Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is tied to, by far, the most famous earmark—the Gravina Island Bridge or, as it's most commonly known, The Bridge to Nowhere. The nickname is so famous that it's become a catchphrase for other pork projects and wasteful spending, making Ted Stevens the poster child for government pork.

The project was given the nickname because it would have connected the mainland with Gravina Island—an island that was home to 50 residents at the time and the Ketchikan Airport. More than $220 million was set aside for the project in the National Appropriations Bill. But opposition to the project led to its removal by Congress in 2005.

Military Spending

Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Ca.) resigned and pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks from military contractors for steering business their way, using his positions on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and the Intelligence Committee to insert earmarks for military spending.

In 2006, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for accepting $2.4 million in bribes. He was also required to pay almost $2 million in restitution. He completed his prison sentence and was released in 2013.

I'm a Little Teapot

There's probably little chance that you've heard—or even been to—Sparta, North Carolina. That's why so many people found it strange that Congress set aside $500,000 in federal funding for the construction of a very unique museum in Sparta—a town that had a population of about 18,000—the Sparta Teapot Museum of Craft and Design.

Funding was secured by Rep. Virginia Foxx with help from Sen. Richard Burr, both Republicans from North Carolina. Foxx called the project a form of economic development that would benefit the state.

The museum closed its doors in January 2010.

The Big Dig

The Big Dig in Boston ended up being the most expensive transportation earmark in history. The Big Dig took over 20 years to complete, costing taxpayers more than $14 billion dollars.

The idea was to take an above-ground highway and relocate it underground to improve traffic flow to Boston's Logan airport and fix traffic gridlock in the city. While the results have improved traffic flow in Boston, the ticket price was astonishing.

Congress originally tried to appropriate funding for the project in a 1987 bill, but it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan. Congress subsequently overrode the veto and federal funds were earmarked for this large project. Extreme cost overages, fraud, and death kept this project controversial.

Turtle Tunnel

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 was supposed to provide earmark funding for shovel-ready projects across the country to get Americans back to work. Among those was a tunnel meant for turtles in Florida. The turtle-crossing project cost $3.4 million to construct a tunnel under Highway 27 north of Tallahassee, so wildlife can safely cross.

Drunk Mice

Earmarks don't necessarily have to come with large price tags, as proved by this example. This instance makes the list not because of the money, but because it's so comical. A little over $15,000 of earmarked stimulus funds were given to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton to study how alcohol affects a mouse's motor function.

The Bottom Line

The Office of Management and Budget has downloadable databases for Earmarks in Appropriation Bills dating back to 2005. Sometimes it's the amount of the earmark that makes it outrageous, while other ties it's the use of funds that makes people scratch their heads.