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Greasing the wheels of government

The partnership between pork and politicians

Created date

May 30th, 2009

There s been much talk of late about pork and politicians larding up proposed legislation, particularly in light of the recent spending bills. These terms may seem better suited for the barbecue pit than the hallowed floors of Congress, but they refer to a process that, depending on one s perception, amounts to everything from political compromise to the wasteful, even corrupt spending of federal tax dollars. Pork barrel politics takes its origin from one of the darker periods in American history when plantation owners put out barrels of salted pork for their slaves. The typically underfed captives would rush the barrels to secure themselves a piece of meat. In time, the image of the swarming, ravenous slaves came to apply to politicians hovering over dollar-rich legislation as they waited to snatch a piece for their constituents back home. The practice itself has long been a part of the process through which bills slide through Congress. Every bill, before it becomes law, must go before one of the 12 appropriations committees, where members determine how much funding the proposed legislation will receive and how they will divide this money among the different programs it creates. For instance, Congress might draw up a bill designed to improve the nation s transportation infrastructure. The transportation appropriations committee grants $45 million in spending for this bill, allotting certain amounts to bridges, highways, and railroads. This is where the pork comes into play. As members divvy up the millions 20 for bridges, 10 for highways, another 15 for railroads they can earmark small portions of each to fund a program in a congressman s district or a senator s state. Much like a chef larding a dry piece of venison, a congressman from Northern Virginia inserts into the bill a new bridge for his district while another from southern Pennsylvania gets his constituents newly paved roads. The idea of funding these local projects at the expense of the entire nation s taxpayers is largely responsible for keeping the process of pork barrel politics submerged in the murky depths of public opinion. According to Diana Evans, professor of political science at Trinity College in Connecticut, drawing a line between the practice s pros and cons isn t so easy. "Whether or not pork is a good thing is something that remains in the eye of the beholder," says Evans, who is also the author of Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress. "The democratic process depends on compromise, and pork, in this sense, serves two functions: first, members want it because they think it helps them get reelected; and second, the leadership uses that electoral incentive to pass legislation that might not otherwise make it through for any number of reasons." As her book s title illustrates, pork is an effective way of greasing the political process that turns bills into laws. But Evans also notes that these incentives often lean disproportionately in the favor of those who sit on appropriations committees an observation for which the 2008 Congressional Pig Book Summary provides support. The annual expos published by the nonpartisan watchdog, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), provides a 59-page breakdown of pork barrel spending by state and appropriations committee. Just a few of the dozens of examples listed throughout the report the majority of which are appropriations committee members include $173.2 million for projects by Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and $165.7 million in projects by former Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee member Ted Stevens of Alaska. "If you look at the top ten states for pork barrel spending, you ll find that the common thread between them is that they have an appropriator," says David Williams, vice president of policy for CAGW. "And even if you live in Alaska and benefit from [pork spending], you re still paying for the $17 billion in total pork spending, meaning you never get an equitable return on what you re paying." Even so, Evans says that the practice is well rooted. "No one is really willing to try doing away with it, in some sense, because it s become politically necessary," she explains. "Members now know that they can get it in return for their support for appropriations bills, and they expect it. Something else perpetuating it is the fact that members use it as a way of maintaining party coalitions. Pork projects benefit their constituents and that keeps them in office."

2008 Pork Per Capita by State


2008 rank

Pork $



1. Alaska




2. Hawaii




3. North Dakota




4. West Virginia




5. Mississippi




6. Vermont




7. South Dakota




8. New Mexico




9. Montana




10. Washington D.C.




*National average is $33.77 per person Source: 2008 Congressional Pig Book Summary, Citizens Against Government Waste