Congress and the Politics of Pork
The value of pork is in the eye of the beholder. That was one of the central messages from this Congress Project seminar examining the politics of pork from a variety of perspectives, each with their own insights into the merits and/or waste of these local projects funded with the nation's tax dollars. The transportation sector was used as a case study for three of the four speakers.
Moderator and Congress Project director, Don Wolfensberger began the seminar with a brief historical explanation of the origin of the term "pork" and "pork barrel" in the political sense. A full history of the "American Pork Tradition" is available in Wolfensberger's introductory essay.
Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN) described his experiences with the appropriations process of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Oberstar went into the greatest detail in his description of the project designation process of the Federal Aid Highway Program. According to Oberstar, when Congress enacted the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1956 allocations for highway improvements were determined by a formula based on highway miles within each state and miles driven in each state. Under this system, Congress could authorize money for projects but had no control over how the states actually spent the funds. When constituencies began complaining about the state of a particular highway to their member of Congress, they were essentially turned away with, "I authorize the money for these projects but I have no control over if or how the proposed projects are carried out, that is up to the state." In 1982 frustration rose to such a point that Congress decided that they wanted more of a say in how money was allocated. Each year the number of member designated projects increased yet the allocations were haphazard and in some cases, politically motivated.
Oberstar described his committee's attempt at making the process for distributing projects more equitable and effective—a 14-point vetting process that each member had to address when proposing a new project. According to Oberstar, this was a fair and equitable process of allocation that judged projects on their merits. He contrasted this process with the Senate Appropriations Committee's project designation which had no such standards.
Tom Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste, outlined some of the findings in his organization's 2000 Congressional Pig Book Summary. He described pork as projects where no hearings are held, where states and often even agenices do not request the project, and at times, do not even want the project. According to Schatz, some of the projects that are funded year after year have become like entitlements. One of the reasons for pork barrel spendng according to Schatz, is that many members believe that this will help them get re-elected. Shatz also pointed out that, as stated in the Pig Book, pork per capita comes mostly from the Senate.
Schatz went on to list several measures that would help to eliminate pork including the restoration of the line-item veto, eliminating the possibility of appropriation committee members proposing projects in their own states, and transparency in terms of who specifically appropriates money for a project. Schatz elaborated on the need for what he calls transparency in government, saying that it should be easy to see exactly how our tax money is being spent. Instead it is very difficult to trace money. Taxpayers should also have access to a list of what programs are working according to their original stated goals, and what programs have failed. Pork describes programs that are funded year after year, yet fail to meet the intended goal.
Frances Lee, assistant professor of political science at Case Western University and a scholar of Congress, described the difference between the appropriations process in the House and the Senate. The difference between the two chambers lies in the fact that senators represent entire states while House members represent parts of states and as a result, each chamber has different incentives in constructing programs to distribute federal funds. Senators are able to claim credit for funds allocated under formula grants to states which distribute the bulk of federal grants in aid. House members are less able to claim credit for funds distributed to entire states and thus have a smaller electoral stake in state-based formula grant programs. Instead, they need to use earmarks to target funds to their particular constituencies. As a case study, Lee examined House-Senate interactions over time in federal aid to states for surface transportation. She showed how the different bases of representation in the House and Senate structured the chambers' preferences in designing distributive programs and how it affected the outcomes of interchamber conflicts over such programs.
As a former reporter for the Congressional Quarterly Weekly and now the Washington correspondent for the Detroit News, Jeff Plungis has followed the Congressional appropriations process for a number of years. While at the CQ Weekly, Pungis was required to carefully track and analyze the entire appropriation process for each bill, following a detailed manual written to guide reporters through the process. From the reporter's perspective, pork always made the best stories. According to Plungis "Pork was politics in its most raw and ancient form." But Plungis was careful to note that as a reporter working for a strictly non-partisan paper, he always kept in mind that one district's pork barrel is another district's great national project. Often due to the secrecy of the process and due to the power and control of certain appropriators, by the time CQ had released a story, it was too late to do anything about it. This was one of the frustrations of the job.
The assembly of this particular group—a senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (which distributes district projects for roads, bridges, mass transit, and aviation); one of the leading organizations opposed to pork barrel spending; an academic who has written on the subject of pork spending; and a journalist who has covered transportation issues both for CQ Weekly and now for a major metropolitan daily newspaper—offered a rich variety of perspectives and frank exchanges on the merits of "pork" projects and allowed the audience to sort through how this distributive process works in Congress and why.