A pork barrel was originally used as a measure of present and future prosperity. Prior to modern refrigeration it was the method by which families kept their meat fresh through the lean season. A barrel of salt pork was also given s a reward to plantation slaves as an incentive to compete for a share of the handout. That history is where we derive its modern meaning – spending intended to benefit constituents in hopes of gaining their political support.
Despite the negative connotations of the term, history shows Americans have a love-hate relationship with pork barrel spending. We love it when the money is being given to our district. We hate it when our tax dollars are used to fund projects for some other district. This dichotomy also reflects how many Americans traditionally view Congress. They hate the institution as a whole, believing it to be a corrupt bunch of wasteful know-nothings. And yet they typically love their individual Congressman, thankful that all that the good things he brings back to the district.
That traditional relationship is beginning to change. Our love affair with localized government spending is fading fast, falling victim to our deep concern over the national debt. This change is recent, brought on by the historic levels of spending under the Obama administration.
As Economics 21 explains, “federal spending reached historic levels in 2009 – to be surpassed again in 2010” soaring to its highest levels since World War II. The increase in spending was not gradual but “instead represented a sudden surge of spending” with spending increasing 4 percent of GDP in a single year. The spending has led to a skyrocketing federal deficit – rising from 3.2 percent of GDP in 2008 to roughly 10 percent in 2009 and 2010.
As this November approaches, incumbents are facing a whole new world – one in which bringing home the pork could actually hurt your chances for reelection. In this post-stimulus world, concern over the deficit trumps all.
In fact, it appears that the more you bring home the bacon, the longer the odds of reelection. Consider a few prominent examples,
Barbara Boxer (D-CA): This powerful Senator, holding the Chief Deputy Whip of the Democratic Majority and chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is one of Washington’s biggest spenders. She currently receives a 1% rating from the Citizens Against Government Waste, the result of numerous pork-laden bills she has voted for. Her most egregious vote? Despite the Department of Defense insisting that they have more C-17 needs than they actually need and the Secretary of Defense urging the White House to veto any bill with additional C-17s, Barbara Boxer is on the frontlines fighting for more. Why? Because they are built in California.
Sorry Babs, that approach isn’t working this year. Boxer is currently in a virtual tie with Republican Carly Fiorina, To see just how far she has fallen remember that she won by 20 percent against her Republican challenger in 2008.
Harry Reid (D-NV): The Majority Leader of the Senate is facing an uphill battle toward reelection. Recent polls have upstart Republican Sharron Angle up by 2-to-3 percent. This is against a guy who won by more than 25 percent in his last reelection bid!
He’s falling despite bringing some serious taxpayer cash home for his district. He received a 4 percent rating last year from the Citizens Against Government Waste and brought home the sixth highest amount of earmarks in the Senate. In fact, Reid got more earmark money than the four members of Nevada’s Congressional delegation combined! All told Reid received nearly $662 million in pork barrel projects for his state.
Barney Frank (D-MA) is the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee and has been a key player in the Democratic power structure. Every election Frank has been considered a shoo-in. In 2004 he won by an incredible 56 percent, in 2006 he scared away every potential challenger, and in 2008 he won by 43 percent. Although polls have been scarce this year (nobody thought a Republican could win) the latest report has Republican challenger Sean Bielat within 9 points.
Once again, Frank’s precipitous fall is not due to any failure in bringing home pork projects. In 2009 Citizens Against Government Waste named him the Porker of the Year for his steadfast financial support of failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He also played a large role in getting the stimulus passed and even lobbied and received $12 million in TARP funds for OneUnited Bank in Boston. His own mini-bailout.
Bacon is delicious, but bad for you in extremely large quantities. Americans have realized that our Congressmen have been gorging far too long on pork. We’ve rewarded them in the past because frankly, it tastes good. We like seeing our representative bring money, projects, and sometimes even jobs back to our district. However, the times have changed. Our appetite for more and more has made our national finances sick.
Now it’s time for a diet. That starts with making a change this elections season.
by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee