What is Pork Barrel Spending? - Definition & Examples

What is Pork Barrel Spending? - Definition & Examples
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  • 0:00 So What Is Pork Barrel…
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  • 3:30 Critics And Proponents
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

Pork barrel spending is the use of federal government money towards specific projects in order to help congressmen win re-election. We'll discuss why such spending occurs and look at some examples.

What Is Pork Barrel Spending?

In 2010, the city of Hartselle, Alabama, with a population of just about 14,000 residents, was awarded $250,000 by the federal government to make a citywide Wi-Fi network. The question immediately arose: Why does such a tiny city need such an expensive Wi-Fi system? What a waste! Why might the federal government decide that taxpayer money should be spent in such a seemingly reckless way?

This type of irresponsible spending is the result of what is called pork barrel spending, sometimes referred to as earmarks. Pork barrel spending is the allocation of federal funds to local projects at the will of a congressperson.

Origins and Reasons Behind Pork Barrel Spending

No one is exactly sure where the term 'pork barrel spending' originated, but some guess it comes from antebellum (pre-Civil War) times, when slave owners would give slaves barrels of salted pork and watch as slaves fought among each other for the meat.

Pork barrel spending occurs when members of Congress spend government money on specific projects intended to benefit their home districts. While on the national level, such spending seems illogical, these projects can help congressmen build support in their home district so they can be re-elected.

But how is a congressperson able to get support for such wasteful spending? To get the answer, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a legislator. Say a legislative bill is brought before Congress. In order to get the bill passed, your vote is needed. But at the same time, you are facing a tough re-election next year, and you know that you have to show voters that you have delivered success for your district. So, you leverage your position and demand that a certain project be funded in exchange for your support of a bill. Your demand may have nothing to do with the bill, but it will make people in your district happy and help you gain re-election. The writers of the bill, desperate to get their bill passed, give in and add it on to the bill.

The process described above is generally how pork barrel spending gets included in federal government. Through this process of legislators leveraging their votes for their district, pork barrel spending reached over $7 billion in 2010.

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