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In American politics, an earmark is a sum of money designated for the use of a regional group or organization, or for a specific project in a certain area. Earmarks are often part of larger pieces of legislature and appropriations bills, and they are sometimes heavily criticized, for a variety of reasons. One of the main perceived problems with earmarks is that because they do not go to government agencies, the executive branch has little control over them. In 2007 alone, $10.4 billion US in earmarks were passed by Congress.
An earmark can be written into legislation, in which case is is considered a hard earmark or hardmark, or it may be included in the recommendations of committees, which makes it a soft earmark or softmark. Softmarks do not need to be treated as legal obligations, but they often are, raising questions about how much oversight is involved with such earmarks, and whether or not these earmarked funds would be approved by Congress as a whole.
As a general rule, earmarks are proposed by individual politicians who want to bring money home to their districts. They may argue that earmarked funds can be used for community improvement, ensuring that their constituents are happy and healthy, but earmarks can also be used to reward people and organizations who have contributed to campaigns, or to attract attention in an election cycle. Citizens are often inclined to re-elect politicians who “bring home the bacon” for their districts in the form of a cushy earmark or two each year. Politicians also work together to pass earmarks, by banding together to support specific appropriations.
One of the major problems with earmarks is that they bypass traditional systems of review. A politician, for example, can designate that earmarked funds go to a particular group without bothering to see if other groups could use the money more efficiently. Earmarks may even be appropriated when they aren't needed, for projects which in no way benefit the constituency, and sometimes they amount to little more than payoffs with taxpayer funds.
Congress does have the power to appropriate funds for the running of the country under the terms of the Constitution, but some people feel that earmarks are an abuse of this power, and they would prefer to see the system reworked. While earmarks can certainly be beneficial at times, the lack of oversight and universal standards makes it difficult for earmarks to be fair, since access to such funds is often linked to political and personal connections, rather than merit.