Origins of the Term "Pork Barrel"

The use of the phrase "pork barrel" in referring to dubious government spending dates at least to the second half of the 19th century. It initially referred to any money a government spent on its citizens, but "pork barrel spending" soon came to refer to members of Congress funding questionable projects in their home districts for political gain.

It has been suggested  the phrase was derived from when enslaved people would scramble for their shares of salted pork, which people who owned slaves gave to them in barrels as a "reward." The literal use of "pork barrel" dates as far back as the early 1700s. Before refrigeration, pork was salted and preserved in large wooden barrels.

Key Takeaways

  • "Pork barrel" spending, or "pork," refers to politicians spending taxpayer money on their constituents primarily to generate political support.
  • In this usage, the phrase dates to at least the late 1800s. It was thought by some to be derived from enslaved people scrambling for their shares when people who owned slaves gave them a barrel of salted pork.

"Pork Barrel Spending"

The usage of "pork barrel" to describe public spending is thought to date to 1863 in the story "The Children of the Public," written by Edward Everett Hale. It was not until about 10 years later that the phrase and the related concept of pork barrel politics came to mean spending by a politician done primarily for the benefit of a group of people in exchange for their support. This support usually comes in the form of votes for politicians or money donated to their campaign.

Pork barrel spending has come to mean spending on public works projects of dubious value in exchange for political support, often at the expense of the interests of the broader public. Money and politics often go hand in hand as the cost of mounting an effective political campaign is quite high.

While it wasn't yet called pork barrel spending, Thomas Jefferson condemned the practice in a letter to James Madison  in 1796, calling it a "source of boundless patronage to the executive" and a "bottomless abyss of public money."

Examples of Pork Barrel Spending

One of the most famous contemporary examples of pork barrel spending was the so-called Bridge to Nowhere. Congress approved a $223 million earmark for a bridge connecting two small towns rural Alaska in 2005. The project became a symbol of wasteful spending, and years later was scrapped altogether in favor of upgrading the local ferry system.

Another example was the Big Dig project in Boston, in which a 3.5-mile section of highway was relocated underground. Then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, of Massachusetts, secured the first federal funds for the project in 1982. It ultimately cost $15 billion, about five times the initial estimate.