Earlier this year, Congress passed a $141 billion transportation bill to build roads and bridges as well as facilitate air travel across the nation. However, a public outcry ensued after the details of the bill became known. The problem of the bill, detractors say, was needless government spending — pork.
Pork-barrel politics occur when a member of congress manages to procure unnecessary programs for his or her constituents in hope of gaining their support. If politicians are heading toward a tough reelection battle in the upcoming election, they traditionally attempt to cozy up to their constituents and give them very visible gifts — a new highway, more railroad tracks or agricultural subsidies.
Congress' approval of the $141 billion transportation bill this summer was a recent example of pork-barrel politics. One provision in this bill allocates more than $200 million to build a bridge taller than the Brooklyn Bridge and nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge connecting the Alaskan city of Ketchikan to Gravina Island.
While the bridge would almost certainly facilitate travel for those living on Gravina Island, only 50 people actually live there, and Ketchikan is a city of 8,000. In addition to the handful of individuals residing on Gravina Island, the island also has an international airport and a ferry that runs every 15 minutes in the summer.
So why would congress pass a bill that allocates so much money to so few people?
The primary reason politicians love pork is they see it as an easy way to enhance their public image. Lawmakers are frequently accused of forgetting about their roots because they spend all their time in Washington — this was a contributing factor to former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's defeat in the 2004 election. Voters became dissatisfied with the amount of time he spent in South Dakota and booted him out of office because they felt he had become out of touch with their norms and values. But politicians commonly counteract these feelings by presenting their constituents with presents — pork.
Proponents of pork-filled bills claim another possible benefit of pork-barrel politics is that it creates jobs and strengthens the economy. The government needs to hire workers when it begins a new construction project, whether it is a new county airport or more railroad tracks. Sen. Stevens used the creation of jobs to justify the Alaskan bridge after a senator from Arkansas called a vote to defund the bridge.
Sen. Tom Coburn proposed amending the transportation bill to defund the Alaskan bridge and reallocate the money to rebuilding a portion of Interstate 10 that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. However, Sen. Stevens delivered a fiery response to the proposed amendment, claiming, "If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state … I will resign from this body." The amendment failed to gain adequate support in the Senate and was thus defeated 82-15.
Yet another benefit of pork-barrel politics is that it is sometimes problematic to determine what truly constitutes pork. While many view bills that aim to build roads as pork-filled pieces of legislation, people need access to the highway and need a bridge to cross a lake or river. When a lawmaker is accused of pork barrel politics, he or she could simply say they were attempting to beautify the district or improve transportation in the district. They could also use the alleged pork to show how dedicated they are to their constituents. The line distinguishing excessive pork from much-needed government spending is a fuzzy and subjective one at best.
The main problem with pork-barrel politics, then, is that money used to fund the public-works projects could be going elsewhere to serve a larger purpose. When members of the House reel in pork money solely for their districts, they take money away from broader programs that benefit a larger number of Americans, whether that be an entitlement program such as Medicaid, a defense bill or a foreign-aid program. It's a zero-sum game.
Pork-barrel politics is something almost every politician has at one point in his or her career decried as detrimental to the country as a whole, yet most politicians have at one point or another tacked on an amendment to a popular bill to build a new highway. The benefits of pork are obvious, and constituents want to see their members of Congress getting things done for them. Yet it appears pork also serves to work against the broader public interest.
Robert S. Hunger (email@example.com) is editorial page content editor and is a senior majoring in political science and journalism.