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What are Pork Barrel Politics?
Pork Barrel Politics or patronage refers to instances of ruling parties funding, and/or cutting taxes on, localized projects based on political and/or personal considerations, often to the expense or detriment of the public.
Government officials can utilize pork barrel legislation as quid pro quo for the beneficiary’s political support- (e.g. votes, campaign donations, endorsements, etc.). Much like Pay to Play and influence peddling, pork barrel politics can involve—quite frankly—bribery. Crony capitalists ‘buy’ corrupt officials in order to break the free market, rigging the economy against the public.
The illicit aspect of pork barrel legislation is the quid pro quo. Inserting a line item in a bill alone, even if it does not get scrutinized or discussed, is NOT illegal. That lack of transparency, though, should raise red flags.
Pork barrel legislation also occurs when a government official has a pet project. For example, they own commercial property in a rundown sector of their city. The legislator successfully secures government funding for an overhaul to the area surrounding his property in a bill that has nothing to do with renovating the city. If you’re wondering why their colleagues don’t question the line item, they often cannot scrutinize over each and every part of the bill. And so, the area goes through a major overhaul costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The community, without a doubt, benefits (although gentrification probably became a very real concern), but the lawmaker surely enjoys the boost in his property’s value.
The Zero Theft Movement, along with our community, is dedicated to eradicating the rigged parts of the U.S. economy in order for the ethical individuals and businesses to thrive. When the government efficiently and ethically uses taxpayer money, then we should be benefiting. In this article, you’ll learn more about how pork barrel legislation might be ripping you off.
Pork Barrel Legislation vs. Earmarking
Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
Although nowadays we often use pork barrel politics and earmarking interchangeably, the two terms do differ. Pork barrel legislation primarily or exclusively serves one group of people, even though the ‘pork’ projects get funded by the wider community. Strictly speaking, earmarking does not have to refer to localized projects.
That differentiation proves important as people tend to view pork barrel politics more negatively than earmarking. The fact that the former specifically benefits one group of people can often make the outgroup feel underserved.
A Quora commenter wrote: “If it’s for my state, it’s a necessary earmark. If it’s for your state, it’s just the same [‘ol] pork barrel politics.”
While not exactly accurate, the idea holds. If it benefits my place of residence, it’s an earmark. But if it benefits your place of residence (i.e. doesn’t fund me/my community), it’s pork barrel legislation.
Neither term, however, has particularly positive connotations. Congress set a moratorium on earmarks that expired in 2018 with that year’s Bipartisan Budget Act, and they have yet to decide whether they will officially prohibit the practice. The Senate went ahead and permanently banned earmarks, though. As we continue through this article, we will treat the terms as synonyms.
The pork barrel metaphor supposedly originates from one of many unsavory practices of slave owners. Without refrigeration in the early 20th century, people preserved pork by brining it in barrels. Slaves, who all had their access to food restricted, would rush to the pork barrel to receive their rations. The theory is, someone likened the slaves stampeding to get pork to congress members getting their local appropriation items into bills. Pure chaos.
How Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) Drains the Pork Barrel
CAGW—a private, non-partisan, non-profit organization—works to “eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in government. The organization has come to prominence with its annual exposés (a.k.a. The Congressional Pig Book), exposing all instances of pork barrel legislation and earmarking occurring each year.
You might be wondering why CGAW was necessary after the 2011 Bipartisan Control act established a moratorium on earmarks. Unsurprisingly, legislators still managed to sneak in items on bills, showing how difficult it is to regulate pork barrel politics.
According to their 2020 report, legislators added $15.9 billion in earmarks in FY (fiscal year) 2020.
CAGW has developed a powerful tool to educate the public on specific instances of pork barrel politics, many of which probably went unnoticed. Furthermore, they include the exact amount of funding that goes to each item, providing you with the knowledge of how much money is being wasted. This helps us hold legislators accountable for their decisions, as well as encourages citizen-led investigations into potential government corruption.
(In)famous Examples of Pork Barrel Politics and/or Earmarking
Many notable cases of pork barrel politics have emerged, sometimes even resulting in massive scandals and arrests. Wasteful spending, of course, hurts all of our wallets, but what makes it even worse is when corporations bribe congress officials to knowingly rip off the public.
People often cite the following instances as the posterchildren of wasteful spending and pork barrel politics/earmarking.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021
The most recent high-profile and much-debated example of pork barrel legislation is the $1.9 trillion dollar economic stimulus bill called the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. President Joe Biden signed it into law in March 2021.
These massive budget bills, simply due to their sheer length, often give officials the perfect opportunity to slip in their pet projects that go unnoticed by most of their colleagues. Otherwise, legislators can band together and ‘logroll.’ In exchange for their vote of approval, some legislators will take the opportunity to add various clauses to a bill. Their personal pork projects get lost among thousands of items.
Advocacy group Stand For America criticized the bill, alleging a slew of pork barrel projects unrelated to COVID-19 had passed without a hitch. They point to a $1.5 million bridge connecting New York to Canada, a $100 million subway system for the Big Tech folks in Silicon Valley, among other projects that requested less funding.
Fact checking website Politifact rated Stand For America’s claims ‘mostly true.’ What the Stand For American fails to mention, according to Politifact, is that (1) the Trump administration had asked for the same $1.5 million bridge and (2) the projects (if they truly are pork) amount to a very small fraction of the $1.9 trillion bill.
The Big Dig project in Boston
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Boston’s Big Dig, an underground relocation project of a 3.5-mile section of highway, has forever gone down in infamy.
Holding the potentially dubious record as the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, the Big Dig took 25 years to complete (1982-2007). Then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill thought relocating a section of the highway would help significantly alleviate gridlock, so he directed federal funds to the project.
Initially, the project’s scale and technical innovations dazzled most onlookers, especially the media. Nevertheless, as the years started to pass, public outrage started to brew and eventually would eventually boil over more than once.
Incompetence throughout the process led to criminal investigations into the contractors involved in the Big Dig. The FBI found that contractors cut costs (i.e. unethically maximizing their profits) by knowingly providing materials that did not meet contract specifications.
What was the total projected cost for the Big Dig? $2.6 billion.
The actual cost? $15 billion ($24 billion counting interest on the debt). And state taxpayers would eventually have to foot nearly half of the bill!
Not only did Massachusetts residents get ripped off (and even killed) by shady contractors/crony capitalists, but they also had to pay for massive mismanagement that they had no control over. While we literally pay for the crimes of others, we are left wondering how many people could have received support from that $24 billion of wasted money.
Do you think the Big Dig is an example of wasteful government contracting, of gross pork barrel spending? See what the Zero Theft community has discovered about the case…
California High-Speed Rail
The California high-speed rail exhibits all the telltale signs of pork barrel politics.
While train manufacturers, construction companies, and trade unions brought the idea to the California legislature in the mid 90s, the proposition did not pass until 2008.
A project earmarked for close to $10 billion looks like it will take upwards of $80 billion to complete. Oftentimes, politicians will only paint a partial picture of the actual goals, adding to the budget as the plans expand after approval. Grossly underestimating the total costs of their pet projects enables them to get things running to a point where it would be a profound waste to stop.
Proponents made many promises (none legally enforceable) that have not come to be now that the plan is action. For one, the railway will be more than 100 miles longer than the planned route, defeating the original purpose of providing an efficient competitor to air travel. As delays, additions, and cost overruns continue to pile on, the project grows progressively unwieldy.
Rightfully disgruntled citizens sent in letters to the Los Angeles Times. Check them out here.
The Gravina Island Bridge (a.k.a. the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’)
One of the symbols of wasteful federal spending and pork barrel politics, the bridge to nowhere rightfully caused public outcry, leading to the project’s eventual abandonment.
Despite its nickname and reputation, the Gravina Island Bridge is a case that calls for a second inspection.
Congress earmarked more than $230 million for the Gravina Island Bridge, which would link Ketchikan, Alaska (<9000 residents) to the airport on Gravina Island (50 residents). Admittedly, that’s a hefty sum for fewer than 10,000 people. Even if public works projects regularly cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nevertheless, the “Bridge to Nowhere” name has always been fundamentally false. The bridge actually would have gone somewhere. Namely, the airport. Locals only have the option of boat and plane to leave Ketchikan, and without the bridge, you have to take a ferry to get to the airport. Access to the outside world, for a small and poor community, would have been made much easier, despite the costs involved.
While the wider community would have paid for an effort that benefits one small group, the question of whether it was wasteful spending/pork barrel politics must be asked. Such context often gets lost in the headlines, but that’s not the case with the Zero Theft Movement. You, the public, have the opportunity to create and review thoroughly researched proposals, so we all can find out the full story of potential cases of rigged economy theft.
Do you think Pork Barrel Legislation Rigs the Economy?
Cases of pork barrel spending can sometimes devolve into arguments just like the one mentioned in the Quora comments. For the citizens (however few) a pet project benefits, the spending might seem worth it. We must, however, remain vigilant when it comes to pork barrel legislation. Perhaps, a helpful question to ask yourself: is this essential for a community or just a luxury? Even that won’t always provide definitive answers, but it might get you thinking a bit more thoroughly about alleged cases of pork barrel spending.
Without action from the public, the corrupt amongst our government officials will prioritize themselves over us. That’s why we need to take matters into our own hands.
The Zero Theft Movement helps you do exactly that.
We, along with our growing community, fights for the ethical parts of our economy by identifying cases of corporate crime to pork barrel legislation. We provide a platform where citizens produce proposals on the total amount of theft occurring in our rigged economy. Based on the best proposals, we end up with a report that arms all of us with an accurate estimate of how much is being stolen from us through unethical practices. We can hold the bad actors accountable only if we have hard evidence.
The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.
Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since Congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.