Congress has used earmarks for hundreds of years

The U.S. Capitol is seen June 26, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Capitol is seen June 26, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

When Congress returns to work next week for a lame duck session, the topic of earmarks is expected to be front and center. Here's the first part in a series looking at the history of congressional appropriations for specific items.

Think of earmarks as amendments to bills that have money attached.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie says Speaker of the House Henry Clay used earmarks in the early 1800s to build roads and harbors in Kentucky. Post offices were also popular targets for earmarks.

Ritchie says in the 1860s Samuel Clemens worked as secretary for a Nevada senator. "But in his alter ego as Mark Twain," Ritchie says, "he could spoof this. He claimed that he was fired from his job because people in a small town in Nevada had written asking for a post office. He wrote back in the name of the senator, 'Why would you want a post office? Nobody there could read. What you need is a good jail.'”

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