What Are Pork Barrel Politics?

If you've ever seen political thrillers, you'll be quick to believe that politics is a dirty game. In the fictional world, politicians are often corrupt individuals driven by greed and personal gain, taking bribes and exchanging favors for the support of lobbyists and other important influencers. But that isn't the case in the real world, is it? There are cases where money, power, and political support override the greater good of all. One of these is known as pork barrel politics.

Key Takeaways

  • Pork barrel politics refer to the practice of politicians trading favors with constituents or special interest groups in exchange for political support.
  • Pork barrel politics benefits just one group of people, even though it's almost always funded by the larger community.
  • Typically, the practice relates to crony capitalism where the relationships between businessmen and the government are what determine success.
  • Pork barrel projects peaked in 2006 with about 14,000 projects receiving about $30 billion in funding between 1991 and 2014.
  • Alaska's proposed Gravina Island bridge and Boston's Big Dig are examples of pork barrel spending.

Understanding Pork Barrel Politics

Pork barrel politics have been present in the United States' legislative and, to a lesser degree, executive branches since the 1800s. Generally used in a derogatory manner, the term refers to the practice of politicians trading favors with constituents or special interest groups in exchange for political support. This can come in the form of votes or campaign contributions. Pork barrel politics—also known as patronage—primarily or exclusively benefit just one group of people even though it's almost always funded by the larger community.

The practice of pork barrel politics relates to crony capitalism. In cases like this, the relationships between businessmen and the government are what determine success—not the free market.

Saying No to Pork Barrel Politics

Examples of wasteful government spending are found each year in the budgets proposed by Congress. Since 1991, pork barrel projects and the amount of money distributed this way have totaled 111,702 earmarks costing $392.5 billion, as estimated by the think tank Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks the spending annually. It got to the point where people started taking notice, leading Congress to take action.

In 2010, Congress put a moratorium on the practice of earmarking—putting money aside for a certain purpose—which placed legislative add-ons on appropriations bills to funnel money to special projects in a lawmaker's state. Earmarks were a common practice used by legislators when attempting to pass a broad bill. However, as recently as April of 2021, Congress is slowly lifting the ban on earmarks, initiated by both House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

Congress put a moratorium on the practice of earmarking—putting money aside for a certain purpose—in 2010. More than a decade later, in 2021, House Republicans and Senate Democrats have lifted their bans on earmarks.

Examples of Pork Barrel Politics

Pork barrel spending and the intersection of money and politics extend back more than a century in U.S. politics. Abraham Lincoln, for example, traded Civil War contracts to northern businessmen in exchange for patronage jobs and campaign support. On a more local level, the early 20th century New York government was dominated by Tammany Hall, a political organization that frequently bartered government contracts for political power. Outrageous examples of political earmarks caution against pork barrel politics, including some of the following examples.

Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere

The American public turned against earmarking money through pork barrel politics toward the end of 2005. This was in response to a large federal highway transportation bill that included concessions for the state of Alaska. Congress initially approved more than $223 million for the infamous bridge to nowhere. The proposal was for the construction of a bridge that would connect the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, to the airport on Gravina Island. The former had a population of less than 9,000, while the latter only had 50 residents.

The project was going to be funded by federal taxpayers, with only a few Alaskans reaping the benefit. After a public outcry, the funds were rerouted and the project was scrapped.

Boston's Big Dig

Another example is the Big Dig project in Boston, a 7.8-mile section of highway that was relocated underground. It was one of the most expensive highway projects in the country, not to mention one of the most complicated because of delays, deaths, and flaws.

Federal funds were directed to the local project by then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill. Initiated in 1982, Congress originally approved the project in 1991 and was to cost $2.5 billion, to be completed in 1998. The Big Dig wasn't completed until 2007. The entire project cost nearly $15 billion—a cost significantly higher than the original budget.

Other Notable Examples

In 2011, the city of Bozeman, Montana awarded Montana State University with more than $740,000 to research the use of sheep grazing as a means of weed control. It came in the form of a three-year grant announced by U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Historically, the Department of Defense (DoD) Appropriations Act contains the most pork. In the 2014 fiscal year budget, more than $120 million was allocated for tank upgrades that the U.S. Army did not even want. The award was apparently made because the supplier of the tanks had operations across several congressional districts.

There are countless examples of pork barrel politics, but often these kinds of negotiations are hard to sniff out as they are buried within other bills.

Pork Barrel Legislation FAQs

What Are Earmarks and Pork Barrel Spending?

Earmarking is the Congressional practice of putting money aside for a certain purpose. Congress has now put a moratorium on the practice of earmarking since it became a gateway for pork barrel spending, projects approved based on personal relationships, or under-the-table deals made with special interest groups. In politics, they are virtually synonymous nowadays.

What Are Government Appropriations?

Appropriations are the budget process of Congress setting aside money for a particular purpose, agency, or program.

What Is It Called When Congress Adds Something to a Bill?

When Congress adds a provision to a bill in the legislative procedure, this is known as a rider. In the past, earmarking a certain bill (which could veer on the side of pork-barrel politics) would be tucked into a bill but not as an official addendum.

Why Is It Called “Pork Barrel” Spending?

The name "pork barrel politics" derived from when enslaved people would receive barrels of salted pork as a "reward" from the people that owned them. This dates as far back as the early 1700s.