Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Looking to the Founders: Dividing Up Pork-Barrel Spending

Author: David Yee
Created: 19 November, 2014
Updated: 18 October, 2022
5 min read
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy. --attrib. Alexander F. Tytler

Nothing quite transcends party lines like the ability of politicians to deliver special projects to their constituencies at the taxpayers' expense.

All sides are equally guilty -- some in the form of useless infrastructure (i.e. the "Bridge to Nowhere" sponsored by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)), some in the form of enhanced social programs (i.e. the East-West Center championed by Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)), and some for corporate America (i.e. the $90 million spent on unwanted tanks by Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) and others on the House Armed Services Committee).

What would the Founders think about pork-barreling? Would they agree with Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who recently argued that pork was a gift the Founders gave to help ease gridlock?

Pork Defined

Citizens Against Government Waste outlines a criteria that can be used to determine if an earmark is pork:

  1. Requested by only one chamber of Congress;
  2. Not specifically authorized;
  3. Not competitively awarded;
  4. Not requested by the president's budget;
  5. Greatly exceeds the president's budget request;
  6. Not subject to committee hearings; and
  7. Serves only local or special interests.

While these criterion make up a broad definition of pork, probably the best known and most abusive is in the form of projects that only benefit a small geographically or ideologically concentrated section of the population -- giving us things like the "Bridge to Nowhere," a multi-million dollar bridge that serves a population of 2,000 people.

Early Pork-Barreling

Whether we like to believe it or not, Harry Reid is correct that pork barreling has been with us from the beginning, with the very first Congress doling out funds from the public trust.

George Thatcher, a member of the Continental Congress and one of Massachusetts' first congressional representatives, claims the dubious honor (along with George Washington, who supported it and signed it into law) of being the first to claim pork for his congressional district.

At that time, Thatcher's district was in Maine, which was part of Massachusetts until 1820.

Maine has always been sparsely populated and off-the-beaten path. Thatcher needed federal funds to complete a lighthouse project for the district -- funds that were unlikely to be provided any other way.

A total of $1,500 was earmarked for the project -- not exactly a huge amount, but it did set into play a system where politicians would consistently try to buy votes with the public coffers.

Confederacy Tries to Right a Wrong

The early system of pork barreling was not as rampant as that of the 20th Century, but the Confederacy saw it as a big enough problem to give the Confederate executive the power to veto specific earmarks in spending bills through a line-item veto.

The President may approve any appropriation and disapprove any other appropriation in the same bill. In such case he shall, in signing the bill, designate the appropriations disapproved; and shall return a copy of such appropriations, with his objections, to the House in which the bill shall have originated; and the same proceedings shall then be had as in case of other bills disapproved by the President. --Art I, Sect. 7, CSA Constitution

This was a unique idea, born out of the necessity of complicated laws with earmarks appropriating funds to grease the wheels of gridlock.

Jefferson Davis never used this measure, so it is unclear whether or not the executive would have gained the upper hand by having such power.

Clinton's Line-Item Veto

Most modern presidents have often requested that Congress give them line-item veto power. Forty-three states give the governor the power to partially veto spending bills, something that has historically been popular among voters.

Bill Clinton (D) was given the power in 1996, which he used a total of 82 times before the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional under the Presentment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Without a constitutional amendment, further line-item veto measures are unlikely to stand up to judicial review -- even though the idea is occasionally revisited in Congress or in public opinion. Considering there hasn't been an amendment ratified from start to finish in the last 43 years, it's unlikely that this will happen any time soon.

Eliminating (or Bringing Back) Pork in Today's Political Climate

The real question is whether or not pork is actually the grease of political compromise.

In 2010, the Republicans promised to not engage in pork barreling for two years, with the principle still largely in effect under Boehner's current House leadership.

But what has happened?

We have wound up with a "do nothing" Congress that refuses to advance any legislation supported by the opposition because of strict adherence to ideologies, from the left and right.

Ideologies make for poor governance; they only serve as the starting point for negotiation. Negotiation almost always means that neither side gets exactly what they want.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not at all for government waste, but I am for the passage of meaningful legislation that helps our country. Legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have never passed without the earmarks it contained -- unfortunately bills seldom pass on their own merits.

While I like the idea of the extra checks and balances of a line-item veto with the ability for congressional override, I'm not sure that it wouldn't eventually turn back into gridlock once the carrot of pork could be snatched away at the last moment by the president's pen.

When in doubt, I like to look at what the Founders did, which is often wholly different than what they said, and pork often greased the wheels of early gridlock. With the midterm Republican win, it will be interesting to see if the party can hold on to its promises of cutting pork or if it will need to use it as a legitimate tactic to get something done.

Pork is a reality we are going to have to live with if there is ever going to be compromise in a politically polarized Congress. While politicians can't always agree on the issues, they can always agree with goodies for their own constituents.

Image: George Thatcher