Pork barrel spending is the use of federal government money towards specific projects in order to help congressmen win re-election. We’ll discuss why such spending occurs and look at some examples.

What Is Pork Barrel Spending?

In 2010, the city of Hartselle, Alabama, with a population of just about 14,000 residents, was awarded $250,000 by the federal government to make a citywide Wi-Fi network. The question immediately arose: Why does such a tiny city need such an expensive Wi-Fi system? What a waste! Why might the federal government decide that taxpayer money should be spent in such a seemingly reckless way?

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This type of irresponsible spending is the result of what is called pork barrel spending, sometimes referred to as earmarks. Pork barrel spending is the allocation of federal funds to local projects at the will of a congressperson.

Origins and Reasons Behind Pork Barrel Spending

No one is exactly sure where the term ‘pork barrel spending’ originated, but some guess it comes from antebellum (pre-Civil War) times, when slave owners would give slaves barrels of salted pork and watch as slaves fought among each other for the meat.

Pork barrel spending occurs when members of Congress spend government money on specific projects intended to benefit their home districts. While on the national level, such spending seems illogical, these projects can help congressmen build support in their home district so they can be re-elected.

But how is a congressperson able to get support for such wasteful spending? To get the answer, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a legislator. Say a legislative bill is brought before Congress. In order to get the bill passed, your vote is needed. But at the same time, you are facing a tough re-election next year, and you know that you have to show voters that you have delivered success for your district. So, you leverage your position and demand that a certain project be funded in exchange for your support of a bill. Your demand may have nothing to do with the bill, but it will make people in your district happy and help you gain re-election. The writers of the bill, desperate to get their bill passed, give in and add it on to the bill.

The process described above is generally how pork barrel spending gets included in federal government. Through this process of legislators leveraging their votes for their district, pork barrel spending reached over $7 billion in 2010.

More Examples of Pork Barrel Spending

One of the more infamous examples of pork barrel spending was the Alaskan ‘bridge to nowhere.’ The bridge was proposed by Senator Ted Stevens in order to connect the city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, which contained the city’s airport and a whopping 50 residents. The bridge would have been a massive project, costing nearly $400 million. Several people quickly criticized the project for being excessive, especially since a ferry service already connected the island, and the traffic on the bridge would be relatively light. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, support for the bridge dropped as the money for the project was seen as wasteful when the city of New Orleans was in ruins. The project lost all funding after the public uproar about the project.

Another example of pork barrel spending was aid given to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. Although originally intended as a bill to aid victims of the hurricane, several congressmen tacked on unrelated spending measures, including nationwide road repairs, Head Start funding and even roof repairs at the Smithsonian National Museum. Though $17 billion was allocated to help Sandy victims, the bill also included several billion dollars in unrelated pork spending.

Critics and Proponents

The obvious critique of pork barrel spending is that it wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary measures. Thus, pork barrel spending is often unpopular among Americans. But some have defended pork barrel spending as part of the American federal system. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has argued that pork barrel spending was present in all Congresses, including the first. For him, pork barrel spending is just a part of the legislative process.

Lesson Summary

Pork barrel spending is the allocation of federal funds to local projects at the will of a congressperson, also sometimes called earmarking. Pork barrel spending occurs when members of Congress spend government money on specific projects intended to benefit their home districts. This is essentially why the public generally finds pork barrel spending unfavorable, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has argued that pork barrel spending was present in all Congresses. Well-known examples of pork barrel spending include Alaska’s infamous ‘bridge to nowhere’ and the earmarking on Hurricane Sandy relief.