What Is Pork Barrel Politics?

Pork-barrel politics is the legislator's practice of slipping funding for a local project into a budget. The project may have nothing to do with the bill and may benefit only the legislator's home district. Before a bill gets to a vote, pork-barreling has often greatly inflated its costs through the addition of various legislators' pet projects.

In modern politics, pork-barreling and earmarking have become virtually synonymous. To be fair, one politician's pork-barrel politics is another's constituent service.

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Pork-Barrel Politics

Understanding Pork Barrel Politics

The annual Congressional Pig Book documenting pork-barrel projects in the federal budget is published by a nonprofit organization called Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

Key Takeaways

  • Funding for a local project can be inserted into a larger budget as a line item. That's pork-barrel politics.
  • Such projects will gain approval with the greater bill without the usual congressional scrutiny or oversight.
  • Earmarking is virtually a synonym but may include projects not strictly local.

CAGW defines a pork-barrel project as a line item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose while circumventing established budgetary procedures. Entries in the annual Congressional Pig Book satisfy at least two of seven criteria:

  • The project serves a limited population or special interest.
  • It did not undergo a competitive bidding process.
  • It was requisitioned by only one chamber of Congress.
  • It was not authorized by an individual.
  • It was not proposed by the president.
  • It required funding that went well beyond the president's official budget request or the prior year's funding.
  • It was not subjected to any congressional hearings.

In addition to all of the above, a project or program must have appeared in prior years as an earmark in order to qualify for the Pig Book.

The Bipartisan Budget Act removed all constraints on pork-barrel projects in 2018. The number of such projects and their overall price tag soared in 2019.

The year 2019 was a record-breaker for both the number and cost of pork-barrel projects added to the federal budget, according to CAGW.

Emptying the Pork Barrel

Pork barrel politics was probably invented by the first legislator who ever lived, but it survives today, often under the slightly less pejorative term earmarks. In either case, it is a sum of money inserted as a line item in the federal budget that funds a specific project.

If there is a difference, projects that are earmarked may not be strictly local. For example, a legislator who has (or wants) a strong base of support among educators or technology companies might add an earmark to the budget that funds a pet project of one of those constituencies.

Two Failed Strategies

In modern U.S. history, there have been two major attempts to curb or cure pork-barrel politics.

  • The 2011 Bipartisan Control Act placed a moratorium on earmarks, which lasted in some form until 2018 when the Bipartisan Budget Act removed all restraints. CAGW points out that plenty of earmarks got through during the moratorium years, but their numbers soared more than 13% after it was lifted.
  • The line-item veto, every president's favorite pork-busting tool, was granted by Congress in 1995. President Bill Clinton liberally used his power to strike individual budget items, but as it turned out he would be its sole practitioner. In 1998, the line-item veto was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the line-item veto has been adopted in 44 states, allowing governors to remove earmarks from state spending bills.