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What is 'Pork-Barrel Politics'

Pork-barrel politics describes a process that legislators use to obtain funding from a central government to finance projects benefiting the legislators' local constituents. The benefits of such projects typically do not extend beyond a legislator's constituency, despite the fact that funding was obtained through taxation of the larger geographic region. This form of political patronage helps the legislator attract campaign contributions and the support of local voters.

BREAKING DOWN 'Pork-Barrel Politics'

Pork-barrel legislation is often voted for by legislators even if it does not benefit their own constituencies in order to win support for their own pork-barrel initiatives. This technique is known as logrolling. Famous pork-barrel projects include Boston's Big Dig highway tunnel and Alaska's "bridge to nowhere."

An Earmark by Any Other Name

Commentators use the terms "pork-barrel politics" and "earmarking" interchangeably. The use of the term "pork-barrel" originated in the first chapter of Edward Everett Hale's "The Children of the Public" story, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in January 1863. Politicians described earmarking as pork-barrel politics near the end of the 19th century.

Earmarking specifically involves situations where funding for particular projects is tacked onto unrelated bills. To prevent that practice, 44 states in the U.S. allow their governors to exercise a line-item veto (also called a partial veto) to remove earmarks from spending bills. The 1996 Line Item Veto Act is a federal law that gave presidents the power to veto line items on bills passed by Congress. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law and used this authority many times. But the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional on June 25, 1998, in the case of Clinton v. City of New York.

The War on Pork

A nonprofit organization called Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) publishes its annual Congressional Pig Book, documenting pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. The CAGW defines a pork project as a line item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures. All items in the Congressional Pig Book satisfy at least one of the CAGW’s seven criteria for identifying pork-barrel projects: They focused on projects that were meant to serve only a limited region or special interest, were not awarded by a competitive bidding process, were requisitioned by only one chamber of Congress, were not individually authorized, were not proposed by the president, were significantly beyond the president's official budget request or the prior year's funding, and were not a topic of any congressional hearings. In addition to meeting the CAGW’s seven-point criteria, to qualify for the Pig Book, a project or program must have appeared in prior years as an earmark.

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