Earmarks and Limitations in Appropriations Bills

CRS Report for Congress
Earmarks and Limitations in
Appropriations Bills
Sandy Streeter
Analyst in American National Government
Government Division
Earmarks and limitations are two devices regularly used in annual appropriations acts
to direct and restrict, respectively, the availability of funds for specified activities.
Sometimes an earmark or a limitation may generate more interest or controversy than the
appropriations act. See [http://www.crs.gov/products/guides/guidehome.shtml] for more
information on federal budget process.
There is not a single specific definition of the term earmark accepted by all
practitioners and observers of the appropriations process, nor is there a standard earmark
practice across all 13 regular appropriations bills. According to the Congressional
Quarterly’s American Congressional Dictionary, under the broadest definition “virtually
every appropriation is earmarked.”1 In practice, however, earmarks are generally defined
more narrowly, often reflecting procedures established over time that may differ from one
appropriation bill to another. For one bill, an earmark may refer to a certain level of
specificity within an account.2 For other bills, an earmark may refer to funds set aside
within an account for individual projects, locations, or institutions.3
Regarding the latter use of the term, some of these earmarks are included in the text
of appropriations measures, floor amendments, and conference reports to such measures.
If enacted, these earmarks are legally binding.

1 Walter Kravitz, Congressional Quarterly’s American Congressional Dictionary: Third Edition
(Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2001), pp. 87-88, available at
[http://www.crs.gov/products/guides/glossary/e.shtml], visited Dec. 6, 2004.
2 An annual appropriations act is generally made up of separate paragraphs, each of which
generally corresponds to a unique account and provides appropriations for multiple programs,
projects, and activities as a single lump sum.
3 Such earmarks might also provide spending floors for individual projects, locations, or
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Most of these earmarks, however, are included in the Senate and House
Appropriations Committees’ reports explaining a measure as reported. These earmarks
are also frequently included in the managers’ joint explanatory statement (or managers’
statement) that accompanies the conference report. Committee reports and managers’
statements do not have statutory force; departments and agencies are not legally bound
by their declarations. These documents do, however, explain congressional intent and
frequently have effect because departments and agencies must justify their budget requests
annually to the Appropriations Committees.
A limitation places a restriction on the expenditure of funds provided in an
appropriations bill, either by setting a spending ceiling, or by prohibiting the use of funds
for a specified purpose(s). Congress is not required to provide funds for every agency or
purpose authorized by law. It may provide funds for some activities or projects under an
agency, but not others. Precedents require that the language be phrased in the negative,
for example, that none of the funds provided in this paragraph (typically an account) shall
be used for a specified activity.4
Limitations may apply to a single account, several accounts, a title, or a bill. They
may be included in appropriations bills, floor amendments, and conference reports.
Limitations are also included in committee reports and managers’ statements. As with
earmarks, limitations included in the text of the legislation are legally binding; limitations
provided only in the committee reports and managers’ statements are not legally binding,
but may have effect.
Under Senate and House rules, limitations, as well as other language in the text of
appropriations legislation, cannot change existing law (paragraphs 2 and 4 of Senate Rule
XVI and clause 2(b) and (c) of House Rule XXI). That is, they cannot amend or repeal
existing law nor create new law (referred to as legislation or legislation on an
appropriations bill). Limitations also may not extend beyond the fiscal year for which
an appropriation is provided.
In the House, these prohibitions apply to committee-reported regular appropriations
bills and supplementals, which provide funds for more than one purpose or agency, as
well as amendments and conference reports to such measures. The rule does not apply
to continuing resolutions or amendments and conference reports to such resolutions. In
the Senate, these prohibitions apply only to amendments, including committee
amendments, to regular appropriations bills, supplementals, which provide funds for more
than one purpose or agency, as well as continuing resolutions.
In the House, the rule may be waived by adoption of a special rule. Under Senate
precedents, an amendment, which contains legislation to a House-passed appropriations
measure, may be considered if it is germane to language in that measure. Amendments
to original Senate bills are not afforded such protection.

4 Walter Kravitz, Congressional Quarterly’s American Congressional Dictionary: Third Edition,
pp. 139-140.

Under House rules, limitation amendments generally must be considered after all the
other amendments have been considered (clause 2(c) of House Rule XXI). Only the
majority leader (or his designee) may prevent consideration of permissible limitation
amendments by making a motion to “rise and report,” effectively ending consideration of
a measure. If a majority votes for the motion, no more amendments may be considered.
If the motion fails, the majority leader may again propose it after a limitation amendment
is voted on (clause 2(d) of House Rule XXI). No similar procedure restricts the
consideration of limitation amendments in the Senate.