Taking Back Our Stolen History
Pork-barrel legislation
Pork-barrel legislation

Pork-barrel legislation

Legislation that brings federal money to a particular Congressman’s district for the primary purpose of enriching members (usually corporations or donors of a candidate) within that district. Basically, it is politicians trading favors with constituents or special interest groups in exchange for political support (contributions). Pork projects can take the form of spending not requested by any federal agency, or locating spending requested by a federal agency within the district. Pork barrel legislation, also known as just “pork” often in the form of an earmark. Conservatives consider pork to be wasteful of taxpayer’s dollars. These are cases where money, power, and political support override the greater good of all.

  • Pork barrel politics benefits just one group of people even though it’s almost always funded by the larger community.
  • 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 between 1991 and 2014.
  • Alaska’s proposed Gravina Island bridge and Boston’s Big Dig are examples of pork barrel spending.

Pork continues, in spite of being wasteful, due to the principles of public choice economics. Each pork project has concentrated benefits, so the supporters of that pork project eagerly pursue it; however a pork project has distributed costs, so detractors have reduced incentive to follow through. A developer might stand to make tens of millions of dollars off of a pork project, the project will waste that money, but the individual tax payer liability is just a few pennies to a few dollars each. However, with thousands of pork projects every year that tiny liability multiplies and becomes a tremendous tax burden.

Keynesian economics look at pork as a positive thing, because they think about the economic effect of the extra spending. They ignore the spending that will not happen because individuals will no longer have the money due to high taxes. The spending that no longer happens due to pork expropriations would have been to purchase things that people want, rather than to purchase things that people do not.

Pork is often added at the closing minutes to larger bills such as Labor/Heath & Human Services Bill or to Emergency War Funds. Since pork barrel is not a traditional government expense presented for approval by congressional committee, billions of taxpayer’s dollars can be spent. Some bills exceed $20 Billion in Pork.

Examples of pork:

  • The 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 $230 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 later only had 50 residents. The project was going to be funded by federal taxpayers, with only a few Alaskans reaping the benefit. After 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 3.5-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, the project was finally completed in 2007. The entire project cost nearly $15 billion—a cost significantly higher than the original budget of almost $3 billion.

  • $25 million by 30 House members for the National Writing Project
  • $150,000 for the American Ballet Theatre in New York.
  • $74 million for peanut storage.
  • $320 million for a bridge in Alaska dubbed “The Bridge To Nowhere”
  • Sugar tariffs cost Americans billions of dollars a year, and concentrate that money in a few congressional districts in Southern Florida
  • The F-35 project is a plane that does not work, and costs billions to make, but the factories are spread around the country (increasing the cost, and reducing the quality) in key congressional districts

The politicians claim that there is scrutiny and “it can be cut out at any time.”. The fact remains, it is nearly impossible to derail lawmakers from these bad spending practices.


According to Bill Safire‘s Political Dictionary,

“The trope is derived from the pre-Civil War practice of periodically distributing salt pork to the slaves from huge barrels. A story by E. E. Hale called “The Children of the Public,” which appeared in an 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, helped popularize the term. In Chapter I, entitled “The Pork Barrel,” Hale wrote: “We find that, when an extraordinary contingency arises in life, as just now in ours, we have only to go to our pork barrel, and the fish rises to our hook or spear.” By the 1870s, congressmen were regularly referring to “pork,” and in 1919 C. C. Maxey vividly made the analogy in the National Municipal Review: “Oftentimes the eagerness of the slaves would result in a rush upon the pork barrel, in which each would strive to grab as much as possible for himself. Members of Congress in the stampede to get their local appropriation items into the omnibus river and harbor bills behaved so much like Negro slaves rushing the pork barrel, that these bills were facetiously styled ‘pork barrel’ bills.”