What is Pork Barrel Spending?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 02 May 2020
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Pork barrel spending is the controversial practice of a legislature directing spending in a specific manner, often to benefit the district or constituents of the member who requests it. It acquired an unsavory reputation in the United States after the Civil War, when congressional spending bills routinely included a number of such expenditures. Despite the controversy and the outcry, elected officials are frequently evaluated on their ability to “bring home the bacon,” and those who are successful at it frequently highlight that fact in their re-election campaigns.

One of the earliest examples of pork barrel spending was attempted in 1817, when US Senator John Calhoun (Democratic-Republican, South Carolina) proposed legislation to use the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States to fund the construction of roads to the nation’s western frontier. It’s considered pork barrel spending because it benefited a relatively small group at the expense of all taxpayers; President James Madison vetoed it. Public works bills often contain a great deal of pork barrel spending, but it’s rare that the Congress passes a spending bill of any type that doesn’t contain some pork, as it’s also called. The same holds true in state and local legislatures in the US, and in most governments worldwide.

Public interest groups have identified a number of characteristics of pork barrel spending. It generally benefits a primarily special interest or a local community, and hearings are rarely held to review it. Another type of pork involves designating a specific company to carry out a project, without awarding the contract on the basis of competitive bidding. On the other hand, if both houses of Congress independently propose an expenditure, or the spending is specifically requested by the president, it escapes the disreputable characterization of being pork.

Opponents of pork barrel spending cite a number of reasons for their opposition. They claim it’s used to buy the votes of legislators — that is, in exchange for a vote on a bill, a legislator will be rewarded with funding for a pet project, often included right in the bill to be voted on. Legislators requesting pork, they say, often use that money to repay political favors. For example, a construction project in a representative’s home district could mean hundreds of jobs, benefiting organized labor, businesses, and local political leaders with ties to both.

Opponents also say that if all the pork barrel spending were eliminated, the savings realized by the government would be massive. Embarrassing projects like the famous Bridge to Nowhere are pointed out by opponents as examples of why it should be prohibited. Authorized by Congress in 2005, the bridge, which would have served a community of under 100 at a cost of almost $400 million US Dollars (USD), generated such controversy that Congress removed its funding later that year, but the controversy survived into the presidential campaign of 2008.

Defenders of pork barrel spending point out that it’s paid out of existing appropriations, not added to them — that is, if $100 billion USD is appropriated to the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Congress authorizes $10 billion USD of defense-related pork barrel projects, only $90 billion USD is left for DoD to spend. Eliminating pork wouldn’t save the money, they say, it would just restore it to the DoD’s budget. In fact, they say, a great deal of what’s called pork is actually necessary spending — road repairs, for example, may be called pork by some, but if that’s the case, no road would ever be repaired. Agricultural subsidies are claimed to be necessary to keep prices affordable for consumers, and also to keep smaller farmers from going out of business. Another issue addresses the constitutional mandate that Congress direct the spending of money — the point they raise is that if the appropriations are simply handed over to executive departments, they’ll often do the same things with the money: reward friends and punish enemies, buy votes in Congress by strategically awarding contracts and authorizing projects, and generate support for friendly elected officials by situating federal projects in their districts.

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