Bring Back Pork

 /  Feb. 8, 2017, 9:50 p.m.


Hatred of pork-barrel spending is one of the few issues that unites Americans. More formally known as earmarking, pork is the disreputable practice whereby a member of Congress circumvents common budgeting procedures by slipping an unrelated expenditure that benefits his or her district into a lengthy, often unrelated, bill. Typical examples of pork are military bases, infrastructure projects, and research grants. Pork is condemned both because these projects are outrageously wasteful and because it has a taint of immorality. Despite the general disgust for the practice, pork had often been used by congressional leadership to ensure rank-and-file support for controversial but beneficial legislation. Pork, though unseemly, has long been essential to ensuring government functions by promoting positive incentives for congressmen and local buy-in from constituents.  

Notwithstanding pork’s long history as an effective legislative tool, Congress passed a bill banning earmarks in 2010 with a rare combination of bipartisan support and President Obama’s endorsement. And what followed? Surely, with earmarks officially banned, Congress must have transitioned into a model of efficient legislative function. Surely members of Congress, no longer corrupt or beholden to special interests, must have devoted themselves to serving the people at large. Surely Congress must have been able to make the politically unpopular, but necessary, choices vital to a well-governed nation.

In fact, the opposite happened. Rather than entering a golden age, Congress entered an age of unprecedented dysfunction. Since 2010, Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill on time, has been constantly on the verge of shutting down the government, and has failed to pass even routine agriculture and transportation bills within a reasonable timeframe. Recent congresses have been historically unproductive and constantly engaged in partisan gridlock and political grandstanding. Fundamentally, Congress has been unable to do its job. It has ignored immigration, climate change, and entitlement reform—issues that, due to their political toxicity, require great political courage.

With the incoming executive branch limited in political experience, Congress will need more than ever to restore itself as a functioning legislature. It is in desperate need of institutional change. Bringing back pork, while not the most morally appealing or inspiring move, is necessary to restore Congress as a body that can get stuff done.

Pork: A Short History

In the early decades of the American republic, fear of pork led the government to postpone or reject infrastructure projects, hindering the country’s early development. For instance, President James Madison vetoed the 1817 Bonus Bill, which sought to build internal improvements in politically important states, because he feared the legislature would be corrupted if it could spend indiscriminately on specific districts or states. As Hoover Institute fellow Adam J. White has written, the fear of pork in infrastructure bills “ultimately doomed Hamilton’s designs, Gallatin’s program, and the Clay-Calhoun Bonus Bill; it likely dissuaded President George Washington from pursuing an infrastructure program in the first place; and it hampered federal and state investment in railroads during tough economic times.” Fear of pork thus impinged on the federal government’s ability to govern productively.

By the latter nineteenth century, pork-barrel spending came to be accepted, helping to facilitate an economic boom that was driven partially by government spending on such projects as the transcontinental railroad. As government spending expanded during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the promise of pork for individual congressmen became vital in encouraging Congress to invest money in crucial pro-growth projects. Congressmen were more likely to support a politically unpopular or unsavory bill if they could demonstrate that the bill provided real, immediate, and palpable benefits for their district.

In addition to infrastructure spending, pork has been a useful tool in passing other necessary but politically controversial legislation. In 1865, when Lincoln faced Democrats hesitant to endorse the Thirteenth Amendment emancipating the slaves, pork was one of the means he employed to assure passage. Though the relatively small nineteenth-century government budget circumscribed the ability to insert monetary grants into pending bills, inducements were available in the form of government jobs and the promise of postponing a bill to regulate a politically sensitive railroad. As radical Republican abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens summarized, “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” A century later, pork came to the rescue of President Lyndon Johnson, known as the master manipulator of Congress, and the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. A NASA grant for Indiana representative Charles Halleck’s district ensured Halleck’s vote and thus civil rights for African Americans. Though not the prettiest or the noblest means, pork ensured positive ends.

More recently, pork has continued to ensure that Congress could pass infrastructure spending and other unpopular but necessary legislation. Pork has been consistently used in highway bills by guaranteeing projects in skeptical congressmen’s districts. As a highway lobbyist at the time of the 1998 highway bill stated, “The projects are the glue that’s going to hold the damn thing together.” Earmarks have been vital in the passage of controversial pieces of legislation, like NAFTA, which would have been too politically toxic without pork doled out to specific districts.

When votes had to be whipped for Reagan’s 1986 tax bill, according to the New York Times, “favorable tax treatment for stadiums in Cleveland, Miami and the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey, for waste-treatment plants in New York City and on Long Island, for a convention center in Miami, for parking garages in Memphis and Charleston, SC, for St. Luke's Hospital and New York University in Manhattan and, not surprisingly, for a savings and loan association in Chicago” were doled out. As the Times article concludes, “it was not a pretty picture, this back-room, 11th-hour horse-trading for votes. But the result was committee approval of the most comprehensive tax bill since World War II, a measure that struck at the nerve of the nation's most powerful lobbyists and special interests and that was widely applauded by many of the same advocates of clean government who [found the doling of pork] so objectionable.” Thus, pork, despite its disrepute, was vital in promoting a cleaner, less corrupt government.

However, voters rarely hear stories of pork put to such positive uses. They rarely hear about the beneficial and necessary legislation that pork, in all its stigma, made possible. Instead, they hear from the media about the famed “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and from organizations like Citizens Against Government Waste about the most outrageous expenditures of pork, including “$50 million for an indoor rainforest in Coralville, Iowa in 2004; $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina in 2006; and $273,000 to combat goth culture in Blue Springs, Missouri in 2002.” (In fairness to the patriotic citizens of Blue Springs, even they acknowledged the stupidity of federal dollars going to suppress goth culture and gave half of the money back after their suppression efforts proved futile.)

When hearing about such outrageous wastes of taxpayer money on top of an instinctual aversion to the immorality of pork, voters, understandably, turn against its usage. Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe earmarks are unacceptable, compared with only 19 percent that deem them acceptable, and Americans support the ban on earmarks by a margin of 63-12 percent. With the American electorate so unusually united, it’s no wonder Congress banned pork-barrel spending.

A Broken Congress

Congress is, perhaps, the one thing Americans are more united in hating than pork. Since 2010, Congress has had historically low approval ratings that have often fallen into the single digits. More Americans disapprove than approve of their own congressman, and a CNN/ORC poll showed most Americans thought the 113th Congress was the worst in their lifetime. Since the ban on earmarks, Congress has failed to pass even routine budgets and appropriations bills, induced multiple debt ceiling crises, and triggered an unpopular and much maligned sequestration. Given this pathetic performance, it makes sense that the two overwhelmingly most cited reasons Americans disapprove of Congress are “party gridlock/bickering/not compromising” and “not getting anything done/not making decisions,” and the two things Americans want their congressmen to do most are “listen to the people/represent the people” and “compromise/cooperate/get along/work together/end gridlock.”

This totally dysfunctional Congress has failed to address any major issue that experts and most of the public agree needs attention—from immigration, to climate change, to free trade, to entitlement reform. When faced with such issues, issues that demand leaders make unpopular, but necessary decisions, Congress has consistently failed.

In 2013, after the Senate passed the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, Congress appeared poised to actually pass a historic piece of legislation. However, as the acrimony and passion surrounding the immigration debate consumed the media and the public over the next year, the House refused to even vote on an immigration bill. With its members driven by a fear of a political backlash, Congress eventually conceded that immigration reform was simply not possible. Whatever one’s position on the specific reforms proposed, it is almost universally agreed that the current system is broken and must be reformed. Congress’s failure to pass any immigration legislation was not only shameful, but damaging to the American economy and reverence for its laws. With too many congressmen willing to record a vote that could be damaging politically, Congress’ failure on immigration was a case study in congressional dysfunction.

Climate change legislation and free trade deals are quintessential examples of politically difficult but necessary acts of government. Although a majority of Americans, in line with scientific consensus, believe that climate change is real and can be addressed by reducing carbon emissions, Congress has failed to pass meaningful climate change legislation. Like climate change legislation, free trade has unanimous support among professional economists and a sizeable majority of the American public. Though Americans support working to stop climate change and facilitating free trade in principle, legislation to accomplish these goals produces political headaches. Both types of legislation are politically challenging because they produce very visible harm (coal miners out of work and steel factories shutting down), while their overwhelming net benefits (lower prices, new jobs in exporting industries and green energy, cleaner air) are broadly dispersed through the general population and occur in the future. Climate change and free trade legislation are politically toxic but good policy.

The ballooning of mandatory spending on entitlements has caused debt levels to grow unsustainably and has crowded out vital investments in infrastructure, education and scientific research. Mandatory spending (primarily Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, interest on debt) constituted 71 percent of the 2015 budget, with only 29 percent left to fund everything else. Within a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), non-defense discretionary spending (excluding the military) will account for a paltry 10.5 percent of total spending, about half of what it was fifty years ago. In the next thirty years, entitlement spending is projected to continue to expand at a greater pace, while nondefense discretionary spending will continue to fall.

As the government spent more and more on mandatory entitlement programs, the infrastructure spending hit thirty-year lows. Formerly 0.5 percent of GDP, infrastructure spending now only makes up 0.3 percent. Not only is infrastructure spending vital to maintain existing roads and bridges, but it is also essential for investment in new capital-intensive projects, such as airport modernization and fiber-optic cables.

As with infrastructure, other investments have fallen by the wayside. Government spending on education has rapidly declined. Research and development, a critical driver of innovation and economic growth, has declined by 50 percent as a percentage of federal spending over the past forty years, from 0.6 percent to 0.4 percent.

As America’s debt levels have grown unsustainably, as mandatory spending on entitlements has crowded out investment spending on infrastructure, education, and scientific research that stimulates future growth, Congress has passed the buck. It failed to pass entitlement reform to invest in the future because it fears a potential political backlash in the present. It has been rendered impotent by distorted incentives.

Distorted Congressional Incentives:

With pork gone, rank-and-file members of Congress continue to decline worryingly in importance and influence in the legislative process. The power Congressional leaders wield has grown rapidly in recent decades. They control which legislation comes to the floor and negotiate massive omnibus spending bills amongst themselves, rather than encourage individual rank-and-file congressmen to promote legislation in which they or their constituents have a stake. Rank-and-file congressmen have few options to distinguish themselves through legislation. Previously, with pork permitted, they could insert a line item in one of the massive omnibus spending bills for an expenditure that would benefit their district. With the elimination of pork, that opportunity is gone. A new congressman essentially has two options if he or she hopes for success: gain national media attention through showmanship and ideological antics or fly under the radar.

The main option ambitious congressmen have to win over voters—one that has particularly contributed to gridlock—is to engage in displays, rather than legislation. Freshman senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz garnered sufficient national attention that they felt confident enough to run for president. The latter even came close to winning the nomination. However, if voters voted solely on the basis of who achieved the most in government, Paul and Cruz would likely not have received a single vote. Instead, both Cruz and Paul rose to fame through obstruction, filibustering major bills, and partisan unwillingness to compromise in the name of principles or ideology. By making dramatic gestures and taking extreme positions, both managed to get a great deal of media attention, furthering their political ambitions without actually promoting the general welfare.

Furthermore, with the main fear for many congressmen being extreme primary challengers from their own party rather than opponents from the other party, congressmen face perverse incentives. Congressmen who simply want to win re-election may see doing nothing of consequence as their best hope. By voting for unpopular but necessary legislation, a congressman could open himself or herself up to a radical primary challenger. Many congressmen come to see flying below the radar as the safest bet to avoid primary challenges. Because few other means of distinguishing oneself to win support in one’s district exist, congressmen are constrained in their ability to make the hard choices necessary for effective governance.

How Pork Can Help:

A return of pork-barrel spending would fundamentally alter the toxic incentives facing congressmen. Pork provides rank-and-file congressmen with the bacon to bring home to their individual districts or states. It allows them to win acclaim and popularity from their constituents through accomplishments, rather than by showmanship or avoiding the limelight.

Although voters hate pork in the abstract, they love pork when they are the recipients. By a margin of 53-11 percent, voters are more likely to support congressmen who fight for spending in their specific district. These numbers suggest that pork-barrel spending would be an effective means for congressmen to win support from their constituents.

Whereas rank-and-file members of Congress currently have few opportunities to actually make substantive contributions to their districts, pork would provide just such opportunities. By fighting for a military base in Georgia, a research grant for Salt Lake City, a defense contract in Providence, Rhode Island, or pensions for coal miners in Kentucky, congressmen can win local approval. In such a scenario, congressmen would feel less need to put on displays in order to get noticed in their district and would be able to point to tangible achievements to fight off extremist primary challengers. Such changes to congressional motivation would vastly improve congressional functioning.

With some extra skin in the game, congressmen would be more likely to support controversial bills like immigration reform without fear of political backlash. A member of Congress who voted for a controversial immigration bill could return to his or her district and counter attacks by pointing to a military base kept open, a research lab opened or a new bridge. Similarly, pork would induce congressmen in districts negatively affected by climate change legislation or free trade agreements to support such laws. If congressmen were able to add an earmark that specifically assists coal miners in West Virginia or retrains factory workers in Western Pennsylvania, they might be more willing to take the hard but necessary vote.

Pork is detested by the right in large part because it seems to epitomize government waste and corruption. However, in contrast to the massive, multi-trillion dollar annual expenditures on entitlements, cutting pork has almost no impact on reducing spending. Indeed, government spending continued to increase steadily since the 2010 ban. In 2006, the worst year for pork, Congress spent $29 billion on earmarks. Such a figure appears massive but is only about 1 percent of the federal budget. Since some pork, such as important research grants and infrastructure projects, is beneficial, the amount actually wasted on pork does not even reach 1 percent.

Much as the pork in the 1986 tax bill ultimately promoted cleaner government with less corruption, pork could make it palatable for congressmen to vote for entitlement reform today. If congressmen knew that they could answer constituents angry over entitlement reform by pointing to specific pork projects they championed, they would be far more willing to support such controversial legislation. Thus, pork would, ironically, encourage smarter and less wasteful fiscal policy by allowing congressmen to make hard but necessary choices.

Pork would also encourage a shift in spending from the ever-growing mandatory entitlements to discretionary investment spending on infrastructure, education, and scientific research. All three of these areas, unlike entitlements, are key recipients of pork. Pork would give congressmen strong incentives to spend on investments if they could take responsibility for specific projects in their district. Thus, bringing back pork should be a central goal of those who favor a more responsible fiscal policy.

For libertarians concerned with ballooning and unsustainable deficits, progressives worried about climate change, conservatives who desire an immigration policy that promotes lawfulness over lawlessness, liberals who seek economically sensible free trade agreements, and moderates who just want to see Congress get stuff done, pork is an institution to unite behind.

Promoting Attachment to Government:

Finally, bringing back pork would also help bring local issues to the forefront, promoting federalism and improving a sense among the electorate that they matter. Recently, there has been a dramatic decline in interest and news coverage of local issues, which not only damages a crucial check against federal tyranny, but also causes crucial local issues to be ignored.

As has become clear over this election cycle, many Rust Belt voters suffered more economically than other Americans understood, and many rural Americans faced a massive opioid addiction crisis that has not received national attention. Fed up with a government they felt was ignoring vital local issues, these voters demonstrated their anger unequivocally this election cycle. By returning to pork-barrel spending, representatives from Western Pennsylvania can insert funding to help workers in Western Pennsylvania displaced by trade, and representatives from New Hampshire can insert funding to fight opioid addiction in New Hampshire. Through such means, pork can ensure that local issues are addressed and that all Americans feel their particular interests are represented in government.

The Founders sought to create a government where every segment of the population had a personal, selfish interest in the government. In this way, they sought to establish a society where each citizen felt that his individual, particular desires were represented. They hoped representatives would promote local interests to ensure that all citizens, even those who lived far from centers of power, would have an attachment to the government and a stake in preserving it.

Pork, however unsightly, has been the glue of this attachment for much of American history. Dissolving this glue has weakened American attachment to government and must be reversed. Without pork, this attachment has weakened.

Conclusion: Better Pork

Pork can and should be reformed. Rather than waging a universal war on pork, politicians, organizations opposed to government waste, and the public should focus their castigation on truly outrageous examples of pork. By exposing the particularly outrageous, the American public could pressure congressmen not to entirely abandon pork-barrel spending altogether, but instead to focus their pork on projects that could benefit communities.

A recent joint study by the Brookings Institution and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on how to maximize the economic benefits of federal investment in scientific research demonstrates a particularly beneficial use of pork. The study recommends concentrating investment in specific innovation clusters that integrate with local economies and drive economic growth, both locally and nationally, through technological advancement. By focusing on these innovation clusters, Congress can make pork more efficient. When congressmen are hesitant to sign on to politically sensitive legislation, they can be corralled with promises of government facilities integrated with tech hubs in their districts, grants for manufacturing universities in the Rust Belt, or federal funding for basic R&D coordinated with existing universities.  

In the end, pork-barrel spending, even with the best reforms, will likely entail some waste. Some pork will inevitably go to pet projects that do little good beyond employing people in a key congressman’s district to suppress goths. This is not ideal. Undoubtedly, pork-barrel spending is not the most honorable or the most respectable means of governing. Ideally, pork could be eliminated and virtuous, disinterested leaders striving for the common interest could conduct the affairs of government.

However, with the alternative being the unbearable congressional gridlock and inaction of the past six years, pork is preferable. Pork, therefore, must be embraced not because earmarks are not wasteful, but rather because the miniscule percentage of the federal dollars that fund such waste is a small price to pay for a government that functions.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Adam Chan

Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.


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