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Pork-Barrel Spending: The History of Lipsticking Pigs


A December 15, 2012, headline in the New York Post declared, “Obama Sandy Aid Bill Filled with Holiday Goodies Unrelated to Storm Damage.” The announced purpose of the $60.4 billion bill was to provide disaster aid to East Coast individuals and communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Instead, the bill was so laden with unrelated and politically inspired handouts that the House of Representatives refused to pass it. Republican Darrell Issa declared of the bill that sprang from the Senate, “They had the opportunity to have a $27 to $30 billion dollar legit relief package, packed it with pork, then dared us not to vote on it.” Many of the handouts were directed to federal assets: the bill allotted $2 million to repair the roof of the Smithsonian in D.C. and $336 million for Amtrak. Other money targeted private ventures, such as fisheries in Alaska.

Such expenditures are called “pork-barrel spending,” “earmarks,” or simply “pork.” These terms refer to the appropriation and redirection of government money toward projects in a representative’s district, often to benefit his supporters. The pork is usually slipped into an unconnected bill as a line item. This allows it to bypass the standard review received by an independent, separate funding request.

The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste declares, “Cases of out-and-out bribery are rare. But pork-barrel spending is a form of corruption, where tax dollars are dolled out on the basis of political favoritism and to advance the careers of Washington insiders.” The corruption is exacerbated by a lack of transparency and by pressure from powerful lobbyists who represent special interests.

The American public is generally disgusted by pork-barrel spending. But some politicians defend the secretive splurging, calling it the American way. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) argues that pork spending has been common “since we were a country.” Is this true?

The history of the American pork barrel

The phrase “pork-barrel spending” is said to derive from a practice of antebellum slaveholders; they would give a barrel of salt pork to their slaves, who scrambled and fought with each other for a share. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term acquired its political meaning in the early 1870s. Webster’s traces the American usage back to the turn of the 20th century.

Advocates draw upon two clauses from article 1, section 8 of the United States Constitution for legitimacy.

The first is called the general-welfare clause. It states, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” Pork is said to provide for general welfare, and thus to be permitted by this clause.

The second is the so-called postal clause. It authorizes Congress “to establish post offices and post roads” as a way to expedite interstate communication. This is now construed to give the federal government the power to appropriate money for public works. (The expenses not covered by section 8 were left to the states. The Tenth Amendment later clarified, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)

Senator Reid is correct in that pork has been around since the first Congress. Up until the 1980s, however, it was not widespread, and it was often discouraged. Some Founding Fathers were uncomfortable even with the funding of postal roads. In a 1796 letter to James Madison, who is often called the father of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson argued against the postal clause.

Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest.

The first Congress (1790) authorized pork in the form of $1,500 to complete a lighthouse in Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts. The expenditure had the active support of President George Washington and of Rep. George Thatcher of Massachusetts. On constitutional grounds, however, the same Congress rejected a bill to aid a glass manufacturer. Perhaps the second bill lacked presidential support.

Contrary to Reid’s suggestion, however, pork-barrel spending did not become common practice. The second Congress solidly rejected a cod fishery bill intended to assist New Englanders. The South Carolina representative Hugh Williamson argued that the Constitution had anticipated “the time might come, when, by greater cohesion, by more unanimity, by more address, the representatives of one part of the Union might attempt to impose unequal taxes, or to relieve their constituents at the expense of the people.”

He pointed to constitutional provisions that clearly indicated “Congress might not have the power … to gratify one part of the Union by oppressing another.”

Moreover, Williamson claimed the bill would set a dangerous precedent: it would establish “a breach,” into which “it is not a few fishermen that will enter, claiming ten or twelve thousand dollars, but all manner of persons; people of every trade and occupation … until they have eaten up the bread of our children.”

Subsequent presidents tended to agree with Williamson even when Congress did not. In 1817, President Madison vetoed an earmark aimed at funding a national system of roads and waterways because he did not believe the general-welfare clause permitted it. He concluded that “special-interest issues like internal improvements inexorably corrupted the legislative process.”

The next president, James Monroe, vetoed a bill to construct a national road. Unlike Madison, he believed the Constitution empowered Congress to appropriate funds, but he argued for an explicit amendment covering internal improvements. Monroe wanted federal power “confined to great national works only, since if it were unlimited it would be liable to abuse and might be productive of evil.” Anything other than “great national works” were the responsibility of the individual states.

From its earliest years, Congress has been torn between those who pursue pork and those who resist it. Until recently, the latter generally prevailed. Indeed, during his two terms, President Grover Cleveland was dubbed “the Veto President” for using that power 584 times; he rejected hundreds of spending bills for which he found no constitutional authority. In 1887, after vetoing a disaster-relief bill to assist drought-stricken farmers in Texas, he stated,

The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune..… Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.

The turning point on pork seems to have come in the 1980s during the Reagan years. Citizens Against Government Waste observes,

Even as federal power vastly expanded during the twentieth century, Congress did not earmark extensively until the 1980s. Instead, Congress would fund general grant programs and let federal and state agencies select individual recipients through a competitive process or formula. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees named specific projects only when they had been vetted and approved by authorizing committees. Members of Congress with local concerns would lobby the president and federal agencies for consideration. The process was aimed at preventing abuse and allocating resources on the basis of merit and need.

When the procedure changed, the floodgates opened. In his book Funding Science in America: Congress, Universities, and the Politics of the Academic Pork Barrel, James D. Savage discusses just one form of pork: academic earmarks. He dates the first such earmark back to 1977 (for Tufts University). According to Savage, federal earmarks per year for academic institutions then rose from 7 in 1980 to 499 in 1992.

The Heritage Foundation offered a more general overview:

Between FY [fiscal year] 1985 and FY 1999, the growth in annual earmarks increased substantially faster — between 25 to 1,000 times faster in most cases — than inflation-adjusted federal domestic discretionary spending.… The number of earmarks in five of the 13 appropriations bills doubled between FY 1998 and FY 1999.

The abuse of earmarks has increased with the popularity of the “omnibus bill” — that is, a package of several appropriations bills merged into one. An omnibus bill typically patches together hundreds of last-minute compromises, insertions, and deletions. The resulting measure is so mammoth and rushed that members of Congress usually vote on it before reading it.


Over the last decade, there have been several attempts to stop the growth of earmarks. But pork continues, because its critics have focused on reform, not elimination. For example, the Anti-Pork Act of 2010 tried to require those seeking earmarks to submit a written statement averring that the earmark met specific requirements. In July 2010, the bill was referred to a House committee, where it remains.

Even if effective anti-pork measures were to pass, many tactics could be used to bypass them. On June 8, 2007, McClatchy newspaper reported, “As the House Appropriations Committee met last week to consider four massive spending bills, something was missing: congressional ‘earmarks.’” The earmarks were missing because the Democrats had pledged to overhaul the pork system.

McClatchy added, “It would appear that the era of the earmark is over. Or maybe not.”

The “maybe not” referred to the announced intention of the House interior appropriations subcommittee to attach earmarks when “House-Senate conference committees meet to hammer out the final versions of the bills.” At that point, the final bill could not be amended but would receive only a “yes” or a “no” vote.

This prospect prompted then–minority House leader John Boehner to protest, “What they’ve done is set up a system where you can’t get at earmarks; you can’t eliminate them.”

Efforts to reform pork are futile, and they give a misleading appearance of fiscal prudence. It was pork-barrel spending to which H.L. Mencken referred in stating, “government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” Giving politicians the power to grant patronage is an inherent evil and a guarantee of abuse.

Jefferson was prophetic. Pork-barrel spending causes an “eternal scramble” among representatives to buy support in their home states. As Jefferson warned, “they will always get most who are meanest.”


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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).