Pork barrel politics

In the late 1800s, when little food was refrigerated, institutional meals often included salt pork dispensed from huge barrels. Groups fed this way - field hands, cowboys, soldiers - were not known for refined manners, and dinnertime around the pork barrel was usually a chaotic scene of waving hands and pleas for tasty morsels.

The United States government, during this same period, was sharply increasing the amount of money it doled out for public works. The din raised by members of Congress, each clamoring for approval of his pet bridge, dam, or levee, reminded observers of a hungry horde rushing a particularly large barrel of pork. Thus was born the phrase ''pork-barrel spending.''

While the institutional pork barrel has given way to cafeteria lines, pork barrel spending for local projects pushed by powerful members of Congress endures.

* Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee has so far managed to keep the $3.6 billion Clinch River breeder reactor located in his state alive - despite concerted efforts in Congress to cut off its funds.

* The Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, a Deep South canal that would be the largest water project in US history, has been scorned by its critics as a costly clone of the Mississippi River. But Tenn-Tom is still being built, thanks largely to Sen. John Stennis (D) of Mississippi, dean of the Senate, and Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

* Less well-known federal projects that critics claim are ''pork'' include a the General Accounting Office - now rising in Ohio, and a controversial synfuel project in the Alabama district of Rep. Tom Bevill (D), chairman of a key House appropriations subcommittee.

This series will examine why members of Congress scramble to bring home the bacon for their district, how they do it, and the effects on the US government.

Clearly, pork barreling today is subtler than it used to be. Members of Congress no longer take the chamber floor and plead openly with their colleagues for a public works project on the grounds that it will improve their chances for reelection, an approach used by a Florida congressman as late as 1960. Viewed in the perspective of the whole US budget, the amount of money spent on pork barrel projects remains small - but it represents a particularly intransigent type of government waste.

''There's plenty of pork left,'' says a congressional aide who specializes in hunting down wasteful projects. ''It's just changed its guise.''

Members of Congress, hands waving amendments in the air, who rush to grab projects out of the federal pork barrel do so for a simple reason: self-preservation. Federal money flowing into the district or state, goes the theory, will perk up the local economy and persuade voters to reelect their incumbent representative or senator.

The dam, laboratory, or weapon involved may or may not be worth the money, from a national point of view. But the politician involved will often fight fiercely for the project, trading favors with colleagues and exercising all the legislative power he or she can muster.

''For most members it's a necessary activity,'' a Senate staff member notes.

Even strident critics of government waste have dipped into the pork barrel. Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin, who awards a ''Golden Fleece'' to what he feels are examples of wasteful government spending, once tried to build a $3. 8 million wood chemistry research lab in Wisconsin. A colleague, angered by Senator Proxmire's antiwaste rhetoric, killed the project.

Though the types of government programs that spend money at the local level have multiplied fruitfully since the end of World War II, the classic pork barrel project is still flood control or water development.

Congress, recognizing the payoffs involved, has never delegated to the executive branch control over where water-project money will be spent. In 1977, President Carter found out how jealously Capitol Hill guards this prerogative when he sent up a list of 19 water projects singled out for elimination. After a bitter fight, only eight projects bit the dust, but so did Carter's honeymoon with Congress. His relationship with Congress was never the same again.

''It's not true that all items in (the yearly rivers and harbors bill) are useless,'' says R. Douglas Arnold, a Princeton political scientist who studies allocation of federal resources. ''But probably two-thirds of them are unjustifiable on economic terms.''

Congress has less direct control over most other types of public works spending. As the institution that holds the government's purse strings, however, the legislative branch has considerable leverage over bureaucrats who parcel out public projects. It's no accident, for instance, that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s built its Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. The Texas city was home to Rep. Albert Thomas, who was then chairman of the subcommittee that dispensed NASA's funds.

On the whole, federal scientific facilities - many less justifiable than the spacecraft center - are popular bits of pork. So are the hospitals, depots, and runways of the annual military construction bill. Congressional pressure sometimes prolongs the life of weapons contracts. Thanks to the efforts of the Texas congressional delegation, a Fort Worth F-111 plant, slated for elimination by the Pentagon, was kept open for four extra years.

Highway and mass-transit projects go over big with the folks back home. So do energy projects. Formulas for dispensing federal grant money are sometimes weighted to favor particular areas, a back-door form of pork barreling.

''Congress is becoming very creative (about what programs can be used to please the district),'' says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar.

But not all members of Congress are equally good at keeping federal projects coming in for their constituents. Successful pork barrelers need power; and, in this instance, ''power'' primarily means a seat on the House or Senate Appropriations Committee.

The appropriations panels shape the bills that set final US government spending plans. Committee members can thus make sure money is earmarked for their pet projects. Perhaps more important, they are able to exert considerable pressure on their colleagues.

And if a prospective pork barreler ''really wants to do the double whammy,'' in the words of a Senate aide, he angles for a seat on a key authorizing committee, such as Public Works or Armed Services, to go along with his prized appropriations post. That way he can personally direct a project's design, as well as ensure it an adequate flow of money.

Typically, members of Congress from the South and West have acquired the seniority to wedge themselves into these powerful slots. The late Sen. Robert Kerr (D) of Oklahoma, who served as Senate Public Works Committee chairman, ''essentially made Tulsa into a seaport'' through water projects, says Princeton's Professor Arnold. More recently, Senator Stennis and Representative Whitten of Mississippi have kept the Tenn-Tom waterway going despite tough opposition.

Legislators from Eastern states, which have fewer large public works projects , tend to be less involved in the pork barrel process.

The impact of pork barrel spending on the federal budget as a whole is a matter of some debate. After all, water projects - classic pork - have fallen from 2 percent of federal spending in 1950 to 0.5 percent today.

''Pork barreling is not nearly as important as it used to be,'' insists Prof. Arthur Maass of Harvard University, author of a book on water projects. The rise of relatively impartial spending programs, such as block grants, has made the congressional pursuit of purely local benefits a thing of the past, he says.

But many academics say other types of government spending, such as entitlements, have been growing faster than traditional pork, and that the structure of Congress guarantees that inefficient water projects, laboratories, and military bases will continue to be built. Hoover Institute scholar John Ferejohn, in his book ''Pork Barrel Politics,'' concludes that ''the principal institutional features leading to overspending in public works are those that constitute the very basis of representative government as it exists in the US: geographic representation, majority rule, and the committee system.''

Next: The Garrison Diversion project - planters' pork?

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