Pork barrel

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Pork barrel is the appropriation of government spending for localized projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative's district. The usage originated in American English.[1] In election campaigns, the term is used in derogatory fashion to attack opponents. Scholars, however, use it as a technical term regarding legislative control of local appropriations.[2]



The term pork barrel politics usually refers to spending which is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes. In the popular 1863 story "The Children of the Public", Edward Everett Hale used the term pork barrel as a homely metaphor for any form of public spending to the citizenry.[3] After the American Civil War, however, the term came to be used in a derogatory sense. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the modern sense of the term from 1873.[4] By the 1870s, references to "pork" were common in Congress, and the term was further popularized by a 1919 article by Chester Collins Maxey in the National Municipal Review, which reported on certain legislative acts known to members of Congress as "pork barrel bills". He claimed that the phrase originated in a pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward and requiring them to compete among themselves to get their share of the handout.[5] More generally, a barrel of salt pork was a common larder item in 19th century households, and could be used as a measure of the family's financial well-being. For example, in his 1845 novel The Chainbearer, James Fenimore Cooper wrote, "I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel."[6]


Typically, "pork" involves funding for government programs whose economic or service benefits are concentrated in a particular area but whose costs are spread among all taxpayers. Public works projects, certain national defense spending projects, and agricultural subsidies are the most commonly cited examples.

Citizens Against Government Waste[7] outlines seven criteria by which spending can be classified as "pork":

  1. Requested by only one chamber of Congress
  2. Not specifically authorized
  3. Not competitively awarded
  4. Not requested by the President
  5. Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding
  6. Not the subject of Congressional hearings
  7. Serves only a local or special interest.


One of the earliest examples of pork barrel politics in the United States was the Bonus Bill of 1817, which was introduced by Democrat John C. Calhoun to construct highways linking the Eastern and Southern United States to its Western frontier using the earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States. Calhoun argued for it using general welfare and post roads clauses of the United States Constitution. Although he approved of the economic development goal, President James Madison vetoed the bill as unconstitutional. A most recent example: to pass the recent "Fiscal Cliff" 12/12 a tax write off went to Hollywood -- a $20 million break anytime a TV show or movie is shot in an economically depressed area of the United States.

1873 Defiance (Ohio) Democrat 13 Sept. 1/8: "Recollecting their many previous visits to the public pork-barrel,... this hue-and-cry over the salary grab... puzzles quite as much as it alarms them."
1896 Overland Monthly Sept. 370/2: "Another illustration represents Mr. Ford in the act of hooking out a chunk of River and Harbor Pork out of a Congressional Pork Barrel valued at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."

One of the most famous alleged pork-barrel projects was the Big Dig in Boston, Massachusetts. The Big Dig was a project to relocate an existing 3.5-mile (5.6 km) section of the interstate highway system underground. It ended up costing US$14.6 billion, or over US$4 billion per mile.[8] Tip O'Neill (D-Mass), after whom one of the Big Dig tunnels was named, pushed to have the Big Dig funded by the federal government while he was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. [9]

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the Gravina Island Bridge (also known as the "Bridge to Nowhere") in Alaska was cited as an example of pork barrel spending. The bridge, pushed for by Republican Senator Ted Stevens, was projected to cost $398 million and would connect the island's 50 residents and the Ketchikan International Airport to Revillagigedo Island and Ketchikan.[10]

Pork-barrel projects, which differ from earmarks, are added to the federal budget by members of the appropriation committees of United States Congress. This allows delivery of federal funds to the local district or state of the appropriation committee member, often accommodating major campaign contributors. To a certain extent, a member of Congress is judged by their ability to deliver funds to their constituents. The Chairman and the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations are in a position to deliver significant benefits to their states.

Use of the term outside the United States

In other countries, the practice is often called patronage, but this word does not always imply corrupt or undesirable conduct.


In the Philippines, the term is commonly used in politics. Filipino legislators are allocated large sums of the annual national budget (200 million pesos for each senator and 70 million for each representative) in a program called the Priority Development Assistance Fund.[11]


Similar expressions, meaning "election pork", are used in Danish (valgflæsk), Swedish (valfläsk) and Norwegian (valgflesk), where they mean promises made before an election, often by a politician who has little intention of fulfilling them.[12] The Finnish political jargon uses siltarumpupolitiikka (culvert politics) in reference to national politicians concentrating on small local matters, such as construction of culverts and other public works at politician's home municipality.

Central and Eastern Europe

Romanians speak of pomeni electorale (literally, "electoral alms"), while the Polish kiełbasa wyborcza means literally "election sausage". In Serbian, podela kolača (cutting the cake) refers to post-electoral distribution of state-funded positions for the loyal members of the winning party. The Czech předvolební guláš (pre-election goulash) has similar meaning, referring to free dishes of goulash served to potential voters during election campaign meetings targeted at lower social classes; metaphorically, it stands for any populistic political decisions that are taken before the elections with the aim of obtaining more votes. The process of diverting budget funds in favor of a project in a particular constituency is called porcování medvěda ("portioning of the bear") in Czech usage.[13]

United Kingdom

The term is rarely used in British English, although similar terms exist: election sweetener, tax sweetener, or just sweetener.[14]


Pork barrel is frequently used in Australian politics,[15][16] where marginal seats are often accused of receiving more funding than safe seats or, in the case of the 2010 election in negotiations with key independents.

See also


  1. ^ By Michael W. DrudgeSpecial Correspondent. ""Pork Barrel" Spending Emerging as Presidential Campaign Issue". America.gov. http://www.america.gov/st/elections08-english/2008/August/20080801181504lcnirellep0.1261713.html. Retrieved 2010-08-14.
  2. ^ For example, Kenneth N. Bickers and Robert M. Stein, "The Congressional Pork Barrel in a Republican Era," Journal of Politics, Nov 2000, Vol. 62 Issue 4, pp 1070-86; Kenneth A. Shepsle and Barry R. Weingast, "Political Preferences for the Pork Barrel: A Generalization," American Journal of Political Science Vol. 25, No. 1 (1981), pp. 96-111
  3. ^ The story first appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 24 and Jan. 31, 1863. Hale, Edward Everett (1910). The Children of the Public. The Man without a Country and Other Tales. Macmillan. pp. 97–175
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, pork barrel, draft revision June 2008. Retrieved October 22, 2008.
  5. ^ Maxey, Chester Collins (1919). National Municipal Review; "A Little History of Pork". National Municipal League. p. 691, et seq. http://books.google.com/?id=IVEJAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA694&lpg=RA1-PA694&dq=%22pork+barrel%22+history+municipal
  6. ^ Quoted in: Volo, James M.; Volo, Dorothy Denneen (2004). The Antebellum Period. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 170. ISBN 0-313-32518-9
  7. ^ "Citizens Against Government Waste:". Cagw.org. http://www.cagw.org/site/PageServer?pagename=reports_pigbook2006#criteria. Retrieved 2010-08-14.[dead link]
  8. ^ Klein, Rick (August 6, 2006). "Big Dig failures threaten federal funding". The Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/08/06/big_dig_failures_threaten_federal_funding/.
  9. ^ By Sara Rimer (2009-12-30). "In Boston, Where Change Is in the Winter Air". New York Times. http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/01/01/travel/escapes/01boston.html. Retrieved 2010-11-17.
  10. ^ $315 Million Bridge to Nowhere Taxpayers for Common Sense, February 9, 2005
  11. ^ "Yahoo! News". Ph.news.yahoo.com. http://ph.news.yahoo.com/star/20090831/tph-palace-increases-pork-by-p700-millio-541dfb4.html. Retrieved 2010-08-14.
  12. ^ Nationalencyklopedin, NE Nationalencyklopedin AB. Article Valfläsk
  13. ^ "Porcování medvěda zvítězilo nad ideály - EURO". Euro.cz. http://www.euro.cz/detail.jsp?id=11172. Retrieved 2010-08-14.
  14. ^ Brown warned on pre-election tax 'sweeteners' - The Independent
  15. ^ The Australian: PM rolls out his own pork barrel
  16. ^ SMH: Vaile in last-ditch pork barrel
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