So-called "pork barrel politics" has 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 granted to constituents or special interest groups in exchange for political support, such as in the form of votes or campaign contributions. Also known as patronage, pork barrel politics generally is funded by the larger community but primarily or exclusively benefits just a particular segment of people.

Pork barrel spending and the intersection of money and politics extend back more than a hundred years 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, early 20th century New York government was dominated by Tammany Hall, which frequently bartered government contracts and the like for political power.

Between 1991 and 2014, the number of pork barrel projects and the amount of money distributed through pork barrel spending peaked in 2006 with about 14,000 projects receiving about $30 billion. In 2010, Congress put a moratorium on the practice of "earmarking," which placed legislative add-ons, or earmarks, 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.

The American public turned against the practice of earmarking money through pork barrel politics toward the end of 2005 in reaction to some pork intended for Alaska that was inserted in a few places in a large federal highway transportation bill. In the infamous "bridge to nowhere" incident, Congress initially approved more than $220 million for construction of a bridge to connect the town of Kethikan, Alaska, with a population of less than 9,000, to the airport on the Island of Gravina, with a population of 50. The $320 million dollar project would be funded by federal taxpayers, yet only a few Alaskans would benefit. After public outcry over the blatant exhibition of pork barrel politics, the funds were rerouted, and the bridge was not built.

Examples of wasteful government spending are found each year in the budgets proposed by Congress. One such pork barrel project funded in 2011 benefited Montana State University, which was awarded more than $740,000 to research the use of sheep grazing as a means of weed control. In the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, more than $90 million was allocated for tank upgrades that the Army did not even want. The award apparently was made because the supplier of the tanks had operations across several congressional districts. Historically, the Department of Defense (DOD) Appropriations Act contains the most pork.

Another infamous example of pork barrel politics is found in the project nicknamed the "Big Dig" in Boston, in which a 3.5-mile section of highway was relocated underground. The Speaker of the House at the time directed federal funds to the local project. Initiated in 1982 and finally completed in 2007, the project cost nearly $15 billion — a cost significantly higher than the original budget of almost $3 billion.

The practice of pork belly politics relates to crony capitalism. Rather than the free market leading to economic success, relationships between businessmen and the government determine success.

  1. How can data assist operations management in increasing efficiency?

    Learn how pork barrel spending provides economic benefits locally but usually results in negative economic consequences on ... Read Answer >>
  2. Who sets fiscal policy – the President or Congress?

    Discover how fiscal policy is set in the United States, including how all three branches of government can affect a given ... Read Answer >>
  3. What are the pros and cons of operating on a balanced-budget?

    Take a brief look at some of the major arguments for and against balanced budgets for the U.S. government, the largest debtor ... Read Answer >>
  4. What's the difference between the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and the Chicago Mercantile ...

    Read about the CBOT and Mercantile exchanges; both are futures exchanges that offer different futures contracts and specialize ... Read Answer >>
Related Articles
  1. Insights

    China's Commodity Exchange Introduces Pork Index

    The Dalian Commodity Exchange launched its first official pork price index, in a country that consumes half a billion pigs a year.
  2. Insights

    6 Outrageous Political Earmarks

    Congress recently failed to adopt a ban on all earmarks. Find out why this type of funding is so controversial, and where it has gone wrong in the past.
  3. Insights

    Money And Politics

    Learn about the progression of events and legislation that shaped and influenced today's political environment.
  4. Insights

    The Current State of the U.S. Debt

    Discover the current state of U.S. national debt, whether it's increasing or decreasing, and what is projected for the next 10 years.
  5. Insights

    Chipotle Stock: Analyzing 5 Key Suppliers (CMG)

    Find out which companies generate significant portions of their revenues from Chipotle Mexican Grill and what makes their relationships unique.
  6. Investing

    5 Big Food Industry M&A Deals in 2015 (KHC, KO)

    Read about some of the most important M&A transactions announced in the food sector in 2015, including one of the most talked about deals in any industry.
  7. Investing

    API Reports 4.08 Million Barrel Inventory Draw, WTI Oil Price Dips On Gasoline Disappointment

    The latest American Petroleum Institute inventory data for the week ending September 29 recorded a headline draw of 4.08 million barrels after an unexpected draw of 0.76 million barrels the previous ...
  8. Insights

    7 Ways The U.S. Government Wastes Money

    Inane studies and gifts to China are just some of the ways that the U.S. government wasted tax-payers' money in 2011.
  9. Insights

    How to Invest In Developing Markets

    Developing markets can be attractive additions to many investor's portfolios, but carry additional risks that must be considered.
  10. Investing

    Wall Street and Washington: Do Politics Move Markets?

    Unless it's a major world crisis, the U.S. stock market seems remarkably immune to political turmoil at the top. So far, anyway.
  1. Earmarking

    Earmarking means to set money aside for a specific purpose.
  2. Micro Risk

    Micro risk is type of political risk that refers to political ...
  3. Political Futures

    Political futures are contracts that speculate on the outcome ...
  4. Special Revenue Fund

    A special revenue fund is an account established by a government ...
  5. Appropriation

    Appropriation is the act of setting aside money for a specific ...
  6. Commodity Market

    The commodity market is a physical or virtual marketplace for ...
Trading Center