Bring back pork barrel spending

Many people complain about pork barrel spending, but pork adapts national programs to local conditions, and provides the grease that lubricates deal-making. Efforts to eliminate pork can actually make Congress less effective as a policy-making institution. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, political scientist Sean Kelly, coauthor of Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy, is reported to have found that Congress’s recent ban on earmarking has reduced the incentive of pragmatic members to serve on the appropriations committees since there are fewer goodies to hand out. Just last month, Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) declined an opportunity to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. News reports speculated that Leahy’s decision may have reflected new restrictions on the Committee’s ability to approve “special projects requested by lawmakers.”

Some insist that we can’t afford pork at a time when Congress is struggling to reduce the budget deficit. But pet projects are cheap, and if doled out strategically, they provide an efficient way for presidents and congressional leaders to build coalitions for broad-based national legislation, as Trinity College political scientist Diana Evans shows in her fine book Greasing the Wheels.

If Congress is ever going to pass a grand bargain that trims entitlements and raises taxes (pain for everyone), shouldn’t we give lawmakers something positive to vote for? Of course we don’t want to return to the days of outright bribery and graft. As Matthew Yglasias writes in Slate, however, the current dysfunctional Congress makes it “hard not to miss a little old-fashioned earmarking and pork.” Sure it would be nice if lawmakers didn’t need to be given side payments to vote for general-interest legislation, but that’s not the American way. As John W. Ellwood and I wrote in our 1993 essay In Praise of Pork, “Favoring legislators with small gifts for their districts in order to achieve great things for the nation is an act not of sin but of statesmanship.”

10 Responses to Bring back pork barrel spending

  1. third party supporter January 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    Unfortunately allowing pork barrel spending also makes it that much harder to usurp incumbents come election time. I’d trade efficiency in passing legislation for some actual turnover (and threat of turnover sure would make a much more ideal incentive for passing general-interest legislation than the opportunity to throw money at pet projects).

  2. Eric McGhee January 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    Eric–these are all very sensible arguments that I tend to agree with. But hasn’t the volume of earmarks increased enormously over the last two decades–i.e., even relative to the size of the budget and the larger economy? I’m all for earmarks, too, but I wonder if they haven’t gotten a little out of hand. Regardless, do you know any research on the volume over time, and what drives it?

  3. Sean Kelly January 14, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    Thanks for the mention.

    In answer to the two comments above:

    Third Party: Incumbents have many advantages; earmarks are only one and the jury is out on whether they make an electoral difference. But if you are correct might we have had a lot of turnover in the last election since there was a moratorium on earmarks? And what does a member of Congress do if he/she is not doing something for the district? A question that we answer here:

    Eric: The total number of earmarks has increased, but earmarks as a percentage of discretionary spending remained fairly flat (now, of course, zero). It is also important to remember that earmarks simply designate where already-appropriated money will be spent, it is not additional spending. By resisting earmarks Congress simply hands power over to the executive branch, a point that Scott and I made here:

  4. Eric January 14, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    I think the fact that getting rid of pork limits deal-making is a plus for its opponents. Effective government is often a problem for them. They don’t like it.

  5. Chaz January 14, 2013 at 7:12 pm #


    If earmarks divert funding from normal executive functions isn’t that a much bigger problem than if they were additional spending? As people have said, the total budget cost of earmarks to the US is not very significant. But if the cost of an earmark is pulled out of a very specific (and small), but important, agency or office then it could deprive that program of its necessary funds.

  6. Kevin January 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    The issue isn’t so much the cost, but what it says about the who we are. The Jack Murthas of Congress on the left could connect with the Jack Abramoff’s of the lobbying sector to engage in some pretty stunning corruption. And very few dared go against the likes of Murtha, since when some did, he made sure they lost their earmarks.

    All the talk about “grand bargains” I think needs to be challenged: how often would we get a “grand bargain” in politics, where it is “pain for everyone” in the age of earmarks? Not often. So it isn’t earmarks that is preventing the “grand bargain.” It is the “grand bargain”, since that isn’t how American politics is traditionally done. Traditionally, reform and change happens incrementally. (For better or worse, look at healthcare reform for an idea of that.)

    “Grand bargain” and “comprehensive reform” have become codewords for ideologues who don’t actually want to get anything done.

  7. Jack Collens January 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    I don’t imagine that we’d end up with a “grand bargain” per se, but with a repeat game and resources to spread around (i.e., pork), we could see a lot of small bargains that would–in the aggregate–look a whole lot like a grand bargain. I don’t think pork is the magic bullet that’ll right the ship (to mix metaphors poorly), but I do think it incentivizes cooperation in a repeat-game environment like Congress.

  8. Sean Kelly January 14, 2013 at 8:43 pm #


    Earmarking does not take place in all accounts (when it takes place). As the media would have it earmarking is like some Roman orgy. It is not. The subcommittees of Appropriations protect the vast majority of accounts from earmarks. Where it does take place–the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education, for instance–the question is who should make the decision about where to spend the money? Do bureaucracies make better decisions about where to spend money than Congress? Is one comfortable with allowing non-elected bureaucrats make all of these decisions? Should there be some democratic accountability? If Congress cannot make any of these decisions are they de facto abdicating their power of the purse? Why did the founders separate the power of the purse from the president’s power to make war? Is is wise to meld those powers?

  9. Sean Kelly January 14, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    I think you are right on both counts. Earmarks are not a silver bullet and their presence will not produce grand bargains; our institutions mostly prevent that. But they do promote some basic level of cooperation. The easiest vote to cast is a NO vote, a point we make here:

  10. Sean Kelly January 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm #


    The number of earmark-related scandals is not as large as the number of media stories about them suggests. There are lots of internal checks that make it difficult for that to happen. It is not impossible but it is rare.

    As I replied to Jack, earmarks or no “grand bargains” are rare in the American system. Earmarks are not a magic bullet, nor are they likely to be the foundation for a grand bargain; but they can ease a certain amount of pain. A point we make here: