An earmark is an all encompassing term for a legislative provision or directive added to legislation that is currently under consideration. Earmarks are most commonly congressionally directed funding added to appropriations bills or authorization bills.
The term is often used in reference to the controversial practice of adding provisions or directives to legislation as a method seeking to circumvent direct legislative oversight in order to: address an issue that a member does not want to address separately in stand-alone legislation, provide a simple solution to issue that can be dealt with more quickly and easily as an earmark, negotiate support for or opposition to the same piece of legislation or other legislation, or to facilitate a nefarious effort to accomplish an inappropriate goal. This type of earmark is either germane as it addresses a negative consequence due to the passage of the bill, not germane to the legislation that it has been added to, or not directly germane as it is a provision or directive necessary to secure support for or opposition to legislation, or a completely inappropriate and possibly illegal use of authority.
There are positive and negative aspects of this controversial use of earmarks.
An earmark can be a useful tool to organize and negotiate support for legislation. A member may be unable to support legislation due to potential consequence to his/her district as a result of the adoption of the legislation. An earmark may provide a specific solution to protect that member’s district from any direct negative consequences of that bill or provide an alternative that could alleviate the consequences by providing an option that would indirectly protect the district from negative consequences. By including an earmark in the bill being considered, the solution would be tied to the passage of the bill as opposed to taking the risk of relying on the entirety of Congress and the president to support the provisional solution separately.
An earmark can be used as a part of a nefarious effort that is used for personal gain or as a part of an inappropriate deal between legislators.
It would be very difficult to definitively ascertain the motives behind an earmark.