Pork barrel

In United States politics, the term "pork barrel" refers to the appropriation of government spending for projects that are intended primarily to benefit particular constituents, such as those in marginal seats or campaign contributors. This usage originated in American English.


The term "pork barrel politics" usually refers to spending that is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support, either in the form of campaign contributions or votes. In a 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. 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. 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 that reported certain legislative acts were known to members of Congress as "pork barrel bills," and claims 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. More generally, a pork barrel (presumably holding the less-perishable 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.

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.


One of the earliest examples of pork barrel politics in the United States was the Bonus Bill of 1817, which was introduced by John C. Calhoun to construct highways linking the East and South of the 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.
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 pork-barrel projects was the Big Dig in Boston, Massachusetts. The Big Dig was a project to take a pre-existing interstate highway and relocate it underground. It ended up costing US$14.6 billion, or over US$4 billion per mile.

Pork-barrel projects, or 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. 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. The Polish kiełbasa wyborcza means literally "election sausage", while Finnish political jargon uses vaalikarja (election cattle). 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, and metaphorically, it stands for any populistic political decisions that are taken before the elections with the aim of obtaining more votes. Although the term isn't used in British English, similar terms exist; "election sweetener", "tax sweetener" or just "sweetener". The term is frequently used in Australian politics

See also


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