Pork barreling (USA)

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pork barreling
Location: United States of America
USA map.png
Author: Andrew H. Sidman
Affiliation: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Original text by Andrew H. Sidman

In the United States, ‘pork barreling’ refers to a process whereby members of the legislative branch secure spending on projects and programmes, often called ‘distributive spending,’ for their constituents. Pork barreling is practised at all levels of government. At the federal level, the pork barrel is comprised of thousands of projects and programs, payments through which can be targeted to particular geographic areas, such as congressional districts. The term is likely derived from the large barrels of salted pork from which rations were distributed to slaves on plantations (Rawson 2007[1]) and its original use is meant to inspire the image of legislators rushing to secure as much spending as possible for their districts (Maxey 1919[2]).

The concept of the pork barrel was born in the US Congress on 20 May 1826 with the passage of the first omnibus appropriations bill for the improvement of rivers and harbours (Maxey 1919[3]). That first omnibus bill included all of the river and harbour appropriations desired by members. With nearly every member receiving an appropriation, majority support was guaranteed for passage of the bill. The practice lends itself to universalism in that it enables most, if not all, legislators to secure benefits for their districts. Universalism is thought to be easier to achieve in pork barreling because of the legislature’s desire for sizable majority coalitions in these matters and the diffusion of the costs of individual programmes (Weingast, Shepsle and Johnsen 1981[4]). Despite the majoritarian nature of the US House of Representatives, universalism may also result from the majority party’s at least partially supporting the distributive desires of the minority party in order to avoid criticism from the minority (Balla et al. 2002[5]).

In modern practice, Congress creates programmes that are then administrated by agencies of the executive branch. Once the programmes have been created, members of Congress and their staffs help their constituents to secure benefits by advertising the existence of the programmes and assisting with various aspects of the selection process. In addition to these permanent programmes, Congress has routinely allowed the practice of ‘earmarking,’ which permits a member to request funds for particular projects. These requests are typically added to the appropriations bills that collectively comprise the federal budget, but they can be added to any legislation. Earmarking has been banned in Congress since 2010, but this ban has had little effect on overall spending since earmarks comprise a small share of overall pork-barrel spending, and funding can continue through other established programmes (Harrington 2015[6]).

While most academic research on the pork barrel has focused on the United States, the practice is found in several other countries. Theoretical work on distributive benefits suggests that legislators prefer these types of benefits in countries with first-past-the-post elections/single-member-plurality district representation; this is because of the diffuse costs and the possibility of targeting benefits geographically (Weingast, Shepsle and Johnsen 1981[7]). In Germany, for example, legislators elected under the first-past-the-post system are more likely to seek to sit on committees that afford them better opportunities to address the needs of their geographic constituencies. Legislators elected through proportional representation are, by contrast, more likely to sit on committees that serve the constituencies of the broader party (Stratmann and Baur 2002[8]).

Legislators’ desires for pork stem from the electoral consequences of these benefits. Distributive benefits are assumed to be an important source of incumbency advantage in that they afford opportunities for credit claiming (Mayhew 1974[9]). More spending, for example, tends to flow to districts represented by electorally vulnerable House incumbents (Lazarus and Steigerwalt 2009[10]). Establishing a solid link between pork-barrel spending and election outcomes has however been difficult. Early studies of the relationship between the pork barrel and electoral outcomes tend to report null findings at the district level (Stein and Bickers 1994[11]). These null aggregate effects are likely caused by the electoral effects of benefits being conditioned by other factors.

Much research has emphasised the conditioning effects of incumbent partisanship. These studies tend to report significant electoral benefits from traditional pork barreling, but only for Democratic incumbents (Alvarez and Saving 1997[12]; Levitt and Snyder 1997[13]). In explaining partisan differences, Bickers and Stein (2000[14]) suggest that these differential partisan effects could result from the type of benefits being received by the district. They distinguish between ‘Democratic pork,’ which includes what is traditionally thought of as the pork barrel, and ‘Republican pork,’ which includes federal loan and insurance programmes.

Because of these electoral benefits, party leaders in Congress are thought to use pork-barrel spending to support the legislative process and encourage behaviour that is beneficial to the party. Evans (2004[15]) finds that pork is frequently added to legislation by leaders to build majority coalitions. In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, two former members of Congress argue that reinstating the practice of earmarking could help to reduce the recent gridlock in Congress (Frost and Davis 2015[16]). Cann and Sidman (2011[17]) show that increases in pork-barrel spending tend to flow to districts represented by members who have voted more often with their party leaders and who have donated to the campaigns of their co-partisans.

Given the research, one might expect partisan or ideological divisions in the public over support for the pork barrel. Sellers (1997[18]), for example, finds that voters are less likely to vote for pork-barreling incumbents who are expected to be fiscally conservative. Sidman and Mak (2006[19]) find that self-identified conservatives are less likely to vote for incumbents when there have been increases in pork-barrel spending. Despite these ideological divisions, there seems to be agreement in the public regarding earmarking, which has tended to be the most visible aspect of the pork barrel, even though it was a minor part. A recent survey from the Economist Group/YouGov finds that a majority of Americans support the earmark ban (Egger 2016[20]). Such gauges of public opinion with respect to the pork barrel are, unfortunately, rare. The pork barrel is rarely an issue that is salient enough to generate significant reaction from the electorate. It is more likely that the pork barrel contributes to public opinion on government spending generally. Given public support for many forms of government spending (Ellis and Stimson 2012[21]), the incentives from the single-member plurality district system, and the history of the pork barrel, it is a practice that will likely continue unabated.


  1. Rawson, H. 2007. ‘Why Do We Say… Pork Barrel,’ American Heritage, April/May http://www.americanheritage.com/content/why-do-we-say-19
  2. Maxey, C. 1919. ‘A Little History of Pork,’ National Municipal Review, 8: 691-705
  3. Maxey, C. 1919. ‘A Little History of Pork,’ National Municipal Review, 8: 691-705
  4. Weingast, B., Shepsle, K., and Johnsen, C. 1981. ‘The Political Economy of Benefits and Costs: A Neoclassical Approach to Distributive Politics,’ Journal of Political Economy, 89: 642-64
  5. Balla, S., Lawrence, E., Maltzman, F. and Sigelman, L. 2002. ‘Partisanship, Blame Avoidance, and the Distribution of Legislative Pork,’ American Journal of Political Science, 46: 515-25
  6. Harrington, E. 2015. ‘Jurassic Pork: Earmarks Alive and Well Despite Ban,’ Washington Free Beacon, 11 June http://freebeacon.com/issues/jurassic-pork-earmarks-alive-and-well-despite-ban/
  7. Weingast, B., Shepsle, K., and Johnsen, C. 1981. ‘The Political Economy of Benefits and Costs: A Neoclassical Approach to Distributive Politics,’ Journal of Political Economy, 89: 642-64
  8. Stratmann, T. and Baur, M. 2002. ‘Plurality Rule, Proportional Representation, and the German Bundestag: How Incentives to Pork-Barrel Differ Across Electoral Systems,’ American Journal of Political Science, 46: 506-14
  9. Mayhew, D. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven: Yale University Press
  10. Lazarus, J. and Steigerwalt, A. 2009. ‘Different Houses: The Distribution of Earmarks in the U.S. House and Senate,’ Legislative Studies Quarterly, 34: 347-73
  11. Stein, R. and Bickers, K. 1994. ‘Congressional Elections and the Pork Barrel,’ Journal of Politics, 56: 377-99
  12. Alvarez, R. and Saving, J. 1997. ‘Deficits, Democrats, and Distributive Benefits: Congressional Elections and the Pork Barrel in the 1980s,’ Political Research Quarterly, 50: 809-31
  13. Levitt, S. and Snyder, J., Jr. 1997. ‘The Impact of Federal Spending on House Election Outcomes,’ Journal of Political Economy, 105: 30-53
  14. Bickers, K. and Stein, R. 2000. ‘The Congressional Pork Barrel in a Republican Era,’ Journal of Politics, 62: 1070-86
  15. Evans, D. 2004. Greasing the Wheels: Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress. New York: Cambridge University Press
  16. Frost, M. and Davis, T. 2015. ‘How to Fix what Ails Congress: Bring Back Earmarks,’ Los Angeles Times, 8 February http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-oe-frost-earmark-spending-20150209-story.html
  17. Cann, D. and Sidman, A. 2011. ‘Exchange Theory, Political Parties, and the Allocation of Federal Distributive Benefits in the House of Representatives,’ Journal of Politics, 73: 1128-41
  18. Sellers, P. 1997. ‘Fiscal Consistency and Federal District Spending in Congressional Elections,’ American Journal of Political Science, 41: 1024-41
  19. Sidman, A. and Mak, M. 2006. ‘Pork, Awareness, and Ideological Consistency: The Effects of Distributive Benefits on Vote Choice,’ paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago
  20. Egger, A. 2016. ‘Majority of Americans Support Congressional Earmark Ban, Poll Shows,’ The Daily Signal, 9 June http://dailysignal.com/2016/06/09/majority-of-americans-support-congressional-earmark-ban-poll-shows/
  21. Ellis, C. and Stimson, J. 2012. Ideology in America. New York: Cambridge University Press