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Methods of Federal Funding > Earmarks > History of Earmarks

History of Earmark Spending

One line in an 835-page bill, a bill which was not an appropriations bill, sparked the recent debate over congressional earmarks. That line directed substantial funding to the construction of a bridge joining the Island of Gravina to the community of Ketchikan in Alaska, or more commonly referred to in the press as “Alaska’s bridge to nowhere.”

Although it may seem like a current trend, Members of Congress have earmarked funding for local projects since the 1st United States Congress.  In 1790, Congressman George Thatcher of Massachusetts, with the support of President George Washington, worked with Congress to earmark $1,500 for the completion of the Portland Head lighthouse.  Since the establishment of the congressional spending power in Article 1 of the United States Constitution, Congress has regularly exercised its prerogative to direct funding toward specific projects deemed important and meritorious by the legislative branch.

In more modern times and up until the 1980’s, the annual appropriations bills passed by Congress did not include many Congressional earmarks. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s the number of earmarked projects slightly began to rise. In 1995 when the Republican Party took control of Congress there was a dramatic increase in the number of congressional earmarks. Furthermore, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), in a memorandum to House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairmen, directed that earmarks be prioritized to Republican members in politically vulnerable districts.


Between 1994 and 2004, the amount of funding spent on earmarks tripled. Earmark spending rose from $29.11 billion in 1994 to $52.6 billion in 2004.  In 1995, there were approximately 1,439 Congressional earmarks. That number peaked to 13,997 in 2005 under a Republican-led Congress.

Although it may seem like a current trend,
Members of Congress have earmarked funding for local projects since the 1st United States Congress


Since the election of a Democratic-majority 110th Congress, there has been a reduction in the number and funding level of earmarks.  For fiscal year (FY) 2007, Congress eliminated essentially all earmarks in order to establish reforms in the process which, as explained below, were implemented. 

Most recently, Congress passed and the President signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008. According to the Office of Management and Budget, in FY 2008, Members of Congress from across the nation secured approximately $16.8 billion in earmarks, of which approximately $10 billion was spent on an estimated 9,000 non-defense related initiatives.