Nobody defends ‘pork barrel’ spending by Congress, but there’s more of it than ever. Whatever happened to the push to eliminate wasteful federal spending?

What exactly is meant by ‘political pork’?
It’s all in the eyes of the beholder, and therein lies the rub. One person’s “pork” is another’s “essential government outlay.” In general, though, pork barrel spending describes the congressional habit of using taxpayer money to reward or benefit a specific constituency, company, or campaign contributor. Pork projects can range from massive undertakings such as the $14 billion spent on Boston’s “Big Dig,” a 3.5-mile stretch of underground highway, to the $500,000 granted to a “Teapot Museum” in North Carolina. As a rule, politicians use the term “pork” to describe spending that benefits some other legislator’s constituents. Spending that helps a politician’s own district is, of course, never wasteful and always vital to the republic.

How is pork doled out?
Mostly by way of a clever congressional invention known as earmarks. Earmarks are provisions inserted in spending bills to direct money to a
particular recipient, often without the inconvenience of public hearings or competitive bidding. Because spending bills usually are massive, most lawmakers don’t even know what they’re approving. But few complain, for fear of losing support for their own earmarks. With little oversight, either internal or external, pork barrel spending via earmarks has exploded, climbing from $9 billion in 1995 to $29 billion in 2005. Though that’s just a tiny fraction of the $3 trillion annual federal budget, it’s money that arguably either could have been spent better elsewhere or not spent at all. The system has produced such gems as Alaska’s infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere,” which Republican Sen. Ted Stevens pushed through in 2005 to connect the town of Ketchikan (population 8,000) to a nearby tiny, sparsely populated island. The project was killed after an outcry, but experts say it stands out not because it was so ridiculous but because it got exposed.

What other sorts of things have gotten through?
Sen. Hillary Clinton recently took some grief for a $1 million earmark for a museum dedicated to the raucous Woodstock rock festival. Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina sent $3 million to an organization called the First Tee, whose mission, according to its website, is to “promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf.” Pennsylvania Republican Rep. John Peterson brought home $500,000 to buy 21 train cabooses to be repurposed for a “caboose motel” in Titusville, Pa. Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond snagged $750,000 for an “Asian Equities Research Center” in Kansas City. Bond defended the center as providing “good information on where people in Missouri can make sound investments.”

Are earmarks always frivolous?
No, which is another reason they have been so resilient, despite various reform efforts. “Just because it’s an earmark doesn’t mean it’s wasteful spending,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. House Appropriations Committee Chairman José Serrano, who represents the Bronx, N.Y., says that without earmarks, low-income districts such as his would never get the federal money they desperately need for health clinics, job-training centers, and similar programs. But Serrano has a harder time explaining a $150,000 earmark aimed at fixing the plumbing in his district’s Italian restaurants. “This is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn’t want to take a bite of,” declared Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, an outspoken critic of earmarks. But Serrano held his ground: “I make no excuses about the fact that I earmark dollars to go to the poorest congressional district in the nation, which is situated in the richest city on earth.”

Who decides who gets the pork?
“The big dogs eat first,” Flake explains. By unwritten rule, the majority party in each house claims about 60 percent of the earmarks. Senior lawmakers from both parties get first dibs, especially those on the appropriations committees, which approve every piece of spending legislation. For instance, Missouri Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, sent $30 million home to her constituents in 2007. In contrast, Reps. Russ Carnahan and John Shimkus, two lawmakers who don’t happen to sit on the appropriations panel, landed only $1.6 million for their districts. This sort of favoritism enrages spending watchdogs. “This is not a meritocracy,” says Ellis of the taxpayers group. “This is an aristocracy of the earmark kings and queens.”

Can anything be done?
Congress is trying, though many would say halfheartedly. The Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 promising reform, and there has been some progress. Legislators seeking earmarks must now attach their names to their requests, and Congress is slowly building a computerized database of earmarks. With the increased scrutiny, the number of earmarks in the federal budget has fallen sharply, from a peak of 13,997 in 2005 to 2,658 last year, according to one count. But the Senate this year overwhelmingly voted down a proposal for a one-year moratorium on earmarks. And despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge of reform, she herself sent $100 million in earmarks back to her San Francisco district last year. Some $300,000 of that total, which Pelosi billed as a teacher-training program, actually went to San Francisco’s Exploratorium Science Museum. Nobody should be shocked, says anti-earmark Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of North Carolina. “The congressional favor factory hasn’t been closed,” he says. “It is just under new management.”

The ancient art of pork
The term pork barrel goes back to America’s earliest days, when Southern planters set out barrels of salt pork for their slaves, touching off a feeding frenzy. It quickly became a metaphor for the way lawmakers would vie greedily for a piece of a federal contract to ensure that their constituents would benefit. Controversy over pork barrel spending is just as old as the practice. In 1796, James Madison, then serving in Congress, proposed a nationwide system of postal roads, which he touted as a way to improve the nation’s infrastructure while allowing states to share in the federal government’s largesse. In response, Thomas Jefferson, who was running for president at the time, made a case against pork barrel spending that budget hawks are essentially still making today. The roads project, Jefferson said, would quickly degenerate into an “eternal scramble” by members of Congress to see “who can get the most money wasted in their state; and they will always get most who are meanest.”