Fiscal policy / Politics

Congressional Earmarks, A New Illusion of Transparency


The age of the internet has ushered in a new level of government transparency. Committee hearings are livestreamed, laws are uploaded to websites, and other documents are available to the public in their own homes. Gone is the hassle of paper stacks and public record requests. Or so one might think. As Congress jumps back into the swing of earmarks, they have also found new ways to hide their actions while maintaining the guise of transparency 


After a ten-year absence, earmarks made a bipartisan and bicameral comeback in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022. Technically speaking, an earmark is a provision of congressional legislation that has a specific amount of money for a specific project, program, or organization. In practice, earmarks, or “pork,” are used to “buy” votes and pacify constituents in the district of the politician who requests them. For example, the Department of Defense portion of the Appropriations Act includes a request by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY-10) for $1,500,000 of the DoD’s defense wide spending to be given to the Museum of Natural History in New York. Not necessarily a bolster to national defense, but it might help Rep. Nadler secure some votes for the next election. 

Transparency Concerns 

Needless to say, the process above could lead to some less than desirable outcomes. Giving members of Congress the ability to “request” money for projects of their choosing could act as a quasi-funnel of taxpayer dollars to the friends of Congress. In the wake of several corruption scandals, including the 2006 conviction of Rep. Duke Cunnignham (R-CA-50), Republicans turned on the practice and in 2010 submitted a budget devoid of earmarks. Now in 2022 earmarks have been brought back in an effort led by the chairs of both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). 

Illusion of Transparency 

In bringing back earmarks, Rep. DeLauro, Sen. Leahy, and congressional leadership have promised an extra level of transparency. Each member is required to post their earmarks, now termed “community spending requests,” on their official websites, and the full text of the act is available at the webpage of the House. However, these postings only give the illusion of transparency and prevent anyone from easily gaining a big-picture look at the scope of the spending. For example, while information has been posted to each member’s website, the formatting is not universal. This might not be a problem if one only intends to research the earmarks requested by one member, but becomes an issue if one intends to compare the earmarks of two or more members. Below are the randomly chosen webpages of Rep. Troy Balderson (R-OH-12) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY-07) as examples: 

The lack of a uniform format means that anyone serious about analyzing the full scope of congressional earmarks would have to search the websites of 435 house members, 100 senators, and 6 non-voting members in order to then copy-and-paste the data for analysis. 

Luckily, the full list of earmarks is available in the online copy of the Appropriations Act. The act follows a mostly uniform format and is put in an organized chart. Unfortunately, it has been uploaded in the most user-unfriendly way possible: a blurry, misaligned, xeroxed PDF. Here is a screenshot of one of the tables from Division D of the Appropriations Act: 

Due to the nature of the PDF, the text cannot be easily copied into any spreadsheet or other data analysis software. Additionally, the extremely blurry scan causes traditional PDF copy-and-paste software to misread the document.  Below is what one of the lines from the above chart says: 

“Heartland Green Energy and Manufacturing Valley Initiative: Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative”  

But the page is so blurry that the copy-and-paste function reads it as: 

“Heartland Green Energy and Manufactunng Valley lrnt,alive, Southern Ohm Diversification ln1t1ative. 

Additionally, monetary amounts such as “995,000” copy as “995.000” and thus auto-correct in most spreadsheet software to “$995.00” for a grand total typo reduction of $994,005. This means copy-and-pasting lines from the document will require a line-by-line critique for all 8,000 earmarks to ensure accuracy. 

The most frustrating part of all is that Congress probably has access to user friendly forms of these documents. The xeroxed chart was not produced on a typewriter or by hand, meaning that there is a file somewhere on Capitol Hill containing the original (and presumably less blurry) bill. Instead of simply releasing that file, Congress has decided to print the bill, then scan it, then upload the scan. This is neither an efficient use of time, nor increased transparency for the public.  


Greater transparency is not out of the realm of possibility. Below the federal level some states, such as Ohio, have an extremely transparent budget system. The public website of the Legislative Service Commission of Ohio has a link where anyone can download a PDF or Excel file of the complete appropriations for the state budget in an easy to read and analyze format. This too is something Congress could implement, if it wants to. 

In short Congress has only given off the façade of increased transparency. The stacks of papers have just turned into files scattered across congressional webpages. Watchdogs and citizens must still spend hours and days compiling data if they wish to get to the facts and hold their government accountable