- Year Created: Part of federal budget since 1789
- Purpose: to allow individual lawmakers to insert priority projects from their states or districts into spending bills.
- What sets it apart: directs funds to local priority projects without needing to go through a statutory or administrative formula-driven competitive process.
- Funding Provided: determined by a yearly appropriations process
Earmarks have historically been used to describe various congressional spending actions. More recently, however, they have become more well known as congressionally directed spending that benefit a project in a specific state, locality, or congressional district.1 Individual lawmakers can the earmark process to deliver federal funding to these projects without applicants having to go through a statutory, competitive, or formula-driven process.
While the earmarking process can bring streamlined funding for needed local projects, they have been tied to controversy after some lawmakers have tried to profit off them in the past. This controversy resulted in a decade-long earmark moratorium in 2011. While the ban can be upheld by committee leadership and established by party rulings, it is not recognized by House or Senate rules. Therefore, earmarks can be included in legislation if leadership in the House or Senate permit them.
Despite the controversy over a small number of earmarks, they have been a useful tactic for lawmakers to bring federal funds to local priority projects. Since these projects are also tied to a lawmaker’s name, constituents can hold their representatives accountable for high demand projects that can benefit their local communities.
In 2021, both the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) and the House Appropriations Committee ended their moratorium on earmarks. The House T&I Committee announced that members could seek earmarks, or Member Designated Projects, as the committee prepared to advance surface transportation reauthorization in 2021 while the House and Senate Appropriation Committees invited members to request Community Directed Spending projects as a first step in their appropriation processes. To avoid any controversy with earmarks, leadership from these committees announced new, stricter transparency rules including making request publicly available online and asking members to submit certification that neither they nor their families had any financial interest in submitted projects.
Over 2,000 submissions were received by the House T&I Committee by both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Among these earmark requests, trail and active transportation projects were eligible to receive funding as they advance surface transportation priorities. Over 3,000 and 8,000 earmark requests were submitted In the House and Senate Appropriations committees, respectively, and trail and active transportation projects were submitted through the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) subcommittees.
What We’ve Learned:
In June 2021, the Committee passed their transportation reauthorization bill, the Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation in America (INVEST) Act. The INVEST act included over $1 billion in earmarks, or 18%, with a significant active transportation component, most of which funded critical active transportation connections. These projects represented over 20% of all earmarks in the bill and illustrated the high demand for active transportation projects across the country and the need for investment that far exceeded what is provided by existing federal programs.
However, the Senate did not take up the House INVEST Act and released their own version of the infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), now known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) (H.R. 3684), which was signed into law in November 2021. While this bill did not include earmarks, the requested projects can tell us a lot about the demand and unmet need for trail and active transportation projects across the country.
While the House Transportation and Infrastructure earmarks were left out the BIL, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees included active transportation earmarks in their Transportation Housing and Urban Development (THUD) subcommittees. These earmark requests competed against other national Transportation, Housing and Urban Development projects, highlighting the strong constituent support and need for trail and active transportation projects. While we wait on the fate of these bills in Congress, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy will continue to advocate for the inclusion of these projects and will turn its attention towards future appropriation processes.
Earmark requests in 2021 presented an exciting opportunity to rally constituent and congressmember support for trail and active transportation projects. Their strong demand was proven in the House version of the INVEST Act. As this bill was not taken up by Congress and instead replaced by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which did not include earmarks, this process should be seen as only one tool to leverage federal funding for trail and active transportation funding out of many programs and grant opportunities. Both the House and Senate Appropriations processes is another avenue to advocate for trail and active transportation funding, but also subject to policymaking and yearly appropriations.
The RTC policy team’s key take-away from earmarks is that it is strategically important for trail advocates to continue to rally local support and continue to build and maintain relationships with their representatives, so that they are well placed to advocate for trail and active transportation projects in Congress when these opportunities arise.