Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Earmarks in Congress

A very controversial subject - which is likely to dominate Congress over the summer months.

In the US system monies are appropriated to Departments and Agencies, who use their discretion to apply the funds to achieve their legally defined objectives. Congress has always had the power to 'earmark' - that is to designate an amount for a specific project. However in recent years the numbers of such earmarks have rocketed. One study claimed that in 1970 there were 12 'earmarks' in the Appropriations Bills, this number rose to 62 in 1980 and hit 2,671 in 2005.

The objection to earmarks is that they have been used as political favours handed out for votes. The manner in which they have appeared has also caused controversy. Often they have not appeared during the earlier stages of the appropriation bills process - when each House can consider the individual earmarks in detail - but at the Conference phase when a joint committee of both Houses meets to reconcile differences between the respective bill from each House. Once a conference decision has been taken the full Houses can only vote for or against the entire bill.
It has been claimed that in 2005 98% of earmarks to Appropriations bills were added at this late stage.

Groups like the 'Sunlight Foundation' have set up websites to highlight the issue and provide information about examples. http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/

One problem facing anyone wishing to investigate earmarks is that there are subtly different definitions. There's a good article comparing the differing definitions at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earmarking#Definitions

I'll be looking at current developments in future posts.