What are Pork Barrel Politics?

Boston's "big dig" is often cited as a pork barrel project. Editorial credit: Mika Eldritch / Shutterstock.com.
Boston's "big dig" is often cited as a pork barrel project. Editorial credit: Mika Eldritch / Shutterstock.com.

Pork barrel is a derogatory term used in United States politics to refer to the act of exchanging favors to constituents or business persons for their political support such as re-election or campaign support. Thus, pork barrel politics (also known as patronage) involves winning the votes and support of constituents and other important social groups through financially supporting a project that is important to them. Pork barrel spending refers to the monies used to finance the pork barrel projects. These projects are funded by taxpayers’ money, but rather than benefit every citizen of the country it benefits only a particular politicians’ district.

Examples of Pork Barrels

The Big Dig Project in Boston, Massachusetts was an example of a pork barrel. The project was championed by Tip O’Neill who sought to have the 5.6 kilometer section of the interstate highway relocated underground. The original estimates for the project were US$3 billion. However, by the time of the completion of the project in 2006, it had cost US$14.6 billion. Another example of pork barrel spending was Alaska’s Gravina Bridge project which would have cost the US federal government US$398 million. Republic Senator Ted Stevens pushed for this bridge project which would have benefited only about 9,050 Alaskan citizens. A public outcry by the US citizens led to the abandoning of the project.

During the political era of President Abraham Lincoln, he exercised a pork barrel whereby he traded Civil War contracts to the northern businessmen in exchange for their support in his campaigns as well as patronage jobs. On the other hand, in 2010, Hartselle City in Alabama State was awarded US$250,000 for installation of a city-wide Wi-Fi network. The project which did not seem to be supported by most locals was funded by the federal government and is an example of a pork barrel spending.

Bork Barrel Spending Approval

Pork barrel finances are received from the Congress or any other legislative assemblies. Approval for such funding starts when a legislative bill is proposed in the House and those who propose it seek votes to pass the bill. One of the congressmen may decide to trade their votes for financial support targeting their home districts as a condition for supporting the bill. Since the proposers of the bill are eager to ensure the bill is passed, they consent to these demands and include such requests on their bill. As a result, the congressman makes their locals happy with the home project and those who sought to pass the bill are equally glad that their deal was passed; albeit at a small prize – the pork barrel.

Outside of the US 

The term “pork barrel” is also used in other countries other than the US. In Romania, the meaning of the term is synonymous to “electoral alms” while in Poland it is equivalent to the term “election sausage.” On the other hand, in Germany pork barrels are divided into two: campaign goodies (election gifts) called Wahlgeschenkein German and Kirchturmpolitik which is a German term for church tower politics used to refer to the funds and reliefs received by a politician’s home district.


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