America’s Hate-Love Relationship with Pork

Pork, everyone hates it, but no one can live without it.

But I am not talking about the meat; I’m talking about Congressional pet projects. And what can be said about pork the food can also be said about pork spending: everyone wants less because they know it’s bad, except they can’t quite give it up when it’s their turn.

In tonight’s State of the Union, President Bush will make an emphasis on stopping earmarks, money set aside by members of Congress for projects designed to funnel money, jobs, and favor into their own districts.

Look, I’m for cutting back on pork as the next guy, but let’s be honest here: pork-barrel legislation is the grease that helps the American political engine run. Because when push comes to shove, when election time rolls around every 2, 4, and 6 years, the only thing that an incumbent can use to appeal to his local constituents is pork. He can say that he got x amount of money and jobs in his district, and of course, his local constituents will applaud him for it.

The heart of the matter is this: everyone, politicians and constituents, play this little game called “let’s bash pork-barrel” spending, but no one is really willing to give up pork. The same people who decry the Bridge to Nowhere will not decry when their own district representative brings federal money in the form of a construction contract that generates jobs for the locals. The same people who decry other Congress members’ pork-barrel spending will not elect their own representative if he fails to bring in an equal amount of federal money.

Because at the bottom of it, American politics is really about representation of local interests, and the pork is the easiest and most obvious way for politicians to show their constituents that he is representing their interests. Whether you think this way of conducting politics is normatively correct is another matter. But to me, it doesn’t look like people really want something different. Sure, every once in a while, we all play the game and denounce some easy target like the Bridge to Nowhere, but everyone–politicians and citizens both–are complicit in this little game we play.

And in this little game, everyone benefits. Congress members get a chance to denounce an easy target and sound the righteous rhetoric horn, appearing to be above the squalor, all the while negotiating deals with other Congress members that will funnel money into all of their districts. Voters, on the other hand, are assuaged that their representatives are “clean,” all the while enjoying the very money funneled through a process that they supposedly “hate.”

Of course I’m not saying that pork spending should be limitless, but all this incessant, self-righteous rhetoric about “stopping waste” strikes me as dubious, self-serving, and worst of all, hypocritical. More so, it is utterly unrealistic, because the structure of American politics present an irresistible incentive to create pork spending. Unless Americans are willing to change the structure, they can never realistically expect pork spending to stop.


Caption: Here, one can see a local constituent enjoying the federal money funneled into his district by his Congressional representative

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