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Roll Out the Barrel

On most days, the lobby of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Washington, D.C., headquarters has a certain rarefied air. But on this Tuesday morning it is thick with the smell of greasy, grilled bacon. The aroma is appropriate, since the breakfast speaker is Republican Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation Committee and, his critics say, one of the most shameless promulgators of pork-barrel spending in all of Congress. The odor seems even more fitting given that the topic of Shuster’s address is the Building Efficient Surface Transportation and Equity Act, the six-year, $217 billion highway-spending package about to pass Congress—and, according to these same critics, the single biggest hunk of pork Washington has seen in a decade.

The critics, of course, are absolutely right. The House version of BESTEA, which hit the floor this week, contains at least $18 billion in so-called “demonstration” and “high-priority” projects. Those are the congressional euphemisms for pork—public works programs of dubious merit, specific to one congressional district, designed to curry favor with its voters. And Shuster’s record for bringing home the bacon is indeed legendary. BESTEA’s predecessor, which passed in 1991, included $287 million for 13 projects in Shuster’s central Pennsylvania district. Today, visitors can see these and other shrines to his legislative clout by driving along the newly built Interstate 99, a shimmering stretch of asphalt the state has officially christened the Bud Shuster Highway.

None of this much bothers the suits at the Chamber of Commerce, who savor every line of Shuster’s pitch as if it were just so much more fat-soaked sausage from the buffet table. Money for roads—whether in Shuster’s district or anybody else’s—means more ways to transport goods and more work for construction companies. But, outside the friendly confines of groups like this, a relentless chorus of high-minded watchdog groups and puritanical public officials complains that pork-barrel spending wastes government money. These critics also protest the way pork becomes law in the first place, as last-minute amendments designed to bypass the hearings and debate bills normally require.

To be sure, these arguments are not exactly novel. The very term “pork barrel” is a pre-Civil War term, derived from what was then a readily understandable (but, to modern ears, rather objectionable) analogy between congressmen gobbling up appropriations and slaves grabbing at salt pork distributed from giant barrels. “By the 1870s,” William Safire writes in his Political Dictionary, “congressmen were regularly referring to `pork,’ and the word became part of the U.S. political lexicon.” Criticizing pork, meanwhile, is just as venerable a tradition. Virtually every president from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan has promised to eliminate pork from the federal budget, and so have most congressmen, much to the satisfaction of muckraking journalists and similarly high-minded voters.

But rarely have the politicians actually meant it, and even more rarely have they succeeded. Until now. Thanks to an endless parade of media exposes on government waste, and a prevailing political consensus in favor of balanced budgets, pork critics have been gaining momentum. In 1994, anti-pork fervor nearly killed President Clinton’s crime bill; in 1995, the same sentiment lay behind enactment of the line-item veto, something budget-balancers had sought in vain for more than a decade. A few years ago, a handful of anti-pork legislators took to calling themselves “pork-busters.” Thanks to their vigilance, says the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste, the amount of pork in the budget declined by about nine percent in 1998.

The influence of pork-busters reached a new peak in 1997, when they helped defeat a preliminary attempt at BESTEA. They probably won’t be able to duplicate the feat this year—Shuster has nearly 400 votes behind his new pork-laden bill, which House Budget Chairman John Kasich has called an “abomination.” But pork-busters won a major public relations victory last week when four House Republicans turned on Shuster and accused him of trying to buy them off with pet projects. “I told them my vote was not for sale,” said Steve Largent of Oklahoma. “Shuster bought just about everyone,” David Hobson of Ohio told The Washington Post. Three weeks ago, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Capitol Hill’s most determined pork-buster, won passage of an amendment that could cut at least some of the bill’s pork. President Clinton has since joined the chorus, saying he too deplores the parochial waste Shuster and his cronies added to the measure.

In the popular telling, episodes like these represent epic struggles of good versus evil—of principled fiscal discipline versus craven political self-interest—with the nation’s economic health and public faith in government at stake. But this narrative, related time and again by purveyors of elite wisdom and then repeated mindlessly by everyday citizens, has it exactly backward. The pork-busters are more anti-government than anti-waste. As for pork-barrel spending, it’s good for American citizens and American democracy as well. Instead of criticizing it, we should be celebrating it, in all of its gluttonous glory.

Nearly a week has passed since Shuster made his appearance before the Chamber of Commerce, and now it is the pork-busters’ turn to be making headlines. In what has become an annual rite of the budget process, Citizens Against Government Waste is staging a press conference near Capitol Hill to release its compilation of pork in the 1997 federal budget—a 40-page, pink-covered booklet it calls the “Pig Book.” (Actually, the pocket-sized, 40-page version is just a summary of the unabridged “Pig Book,” which weighs in at a hefty 170 pages, in single-sided, legal-sized computer printouts.)

CAGW has been fighting this fight for more than a decade, and its steady stream of propaganda, reports, and testimony is in no small part responsible for pork-busting’s Beltway resonance. Republican Representative Christopher Cox calls CAGW “the premier waste-fighting organization in America”; the 1995-1996 Congress sought CAGW testimony 20 times. The interest in today’s press conference—attended by more than 60 reporters and a dozen television crews—is testimony to the group’s high esteem among the Washington press corps, although it doesn’t hurt that CAGW has also provided the TV crews with a good photo opportunity.

Like many press conferences in this city, this one features several members of Congress, including McCain and Democratic Senator Russell Feingold. Unlike many press conferences in this city, this one also features a man dressed in a bright pink pig’s suit, rubber pig masks free for the media to take, plus a live, charcoal-gray potbellied pig named Porky. For the duration of the event, Porky does little except scarf down some vegetable shreds. But the beast’s mere presence gets a few laughs, which is more than can be said for the puns that CAGW’s president, Tom Schatz, makes as he rattles off the recipients of this year’s “Oinker Awards.”

Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii secured $127,000 in funding for research on edible seaweed; for this and other appropriations, Schatz says, Inouye (who is of Japanese ancestry) wins “The Sushi Slush Fund Award.” Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska sponsored $100,000 for a project called Ship Creek, so he gets “The Up Ship’s Creek Award.” (Stevens is a double winner: for his other pork, totaling some $477 million since 1991, CAGW also presents him with “The Half Baked Alaska Award.”) The Pentagon budget included $3 million for an observatory in South America: “It’s supposed to peer back millions of years in time,” Schatz says, his deadpan poker face now giving way to a smarmy, half-cocked smile. “Maybe they’re looking for a balanced budget.” This dubious-sounding project Schatz dubs “The Black Hole Award.” And on. And on.

You might think cornball humor like this would earn CAGW the disdain of the famously cynical Washington press corps. But, when Schatz is done, and the question-and-answer period begins, the reporters display barely any skepticism. Instead, that evening, and during the following days, they will heap gobs of attention on the group. They don’t flatter or endorse the organization per se, but the coverage shares a common assumption that the group’s findings are evidence of political malfeasance. CNN, for example, will use the “Pig Book”’s release as a peg for stories bemoaning the persistence of pork in the federal budget. A story out of Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, which will run in nearly a dozen of the chain’s newspapers, basically recapitulates the report. And all this comes on the heels of a front-page Wall Street Journal feature—sparked by a similar report from the Tax Foundation—highlighting the profligate pork barreling of the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi. Its headline: “MISSISSIPPI’S SENATORS CONTINUE A TRADITION: GETTING FEDERAL MONEY.”

This is typical. Normally jaded Washingtonians, journalists especially, tend to view pork-busters not as ideologues but as politically disinterested watchdogs. Television producers, in particular, regularly summon CAGW experts to validate stories for such waste-focused segments as NBC’s “The Fleecing of America” and ABC’s “Your Money, Your Choice.” While this image has a basis in reality—CAGW truly goes after pork-barreling Republicans with the same fervor it pursues Democrats—it is also a product of the organization’s concerted attempt to wrap itself in the flag of nonpartisanship. “No matter how you slice it, pork is always on the menu in the halls of Congress,” Schatz said at the press conference. “Some members of Congress simply couldn’t resist the lure of easy money and putting partisan political interests over the best interest of taxpayers.”

But it’s not as if the pork-busters have no partisan or ideological agenda of their own. Some, like the Cato Institute, are explicit about their anti-government predisposition. CAGW is a little more cagey, but it remains true to the spirit of its past chairman, perennial right-wing Republican candidate Alan Keyes, as well as its cofounder, J. Peter Grace, who headed President Reagan’s 1984 commission on government waste and whose antipathy to government in general was widely known. “The government is the worst bunch of stupid jerks you’ve ever run into in your life,” he said once at a CAGW fund-raising dinner. “These people just want to spend money, money, money all the time.”

That is, of course, a forgivable overstatement of a plausible argument. But it is also an overtly ideological one, and it calls into question the group’s reliability when it comes to making delicate distinctions about what is truly wasteful. After all, CAGW is not just against pork, but against much of what the mainstream conservative movement considers bad or overly intrusive public policy—which encompasses an awful lot. In 1995, CAGW was not bashful about embracing the Contract With America, whose expansive definition of waste included many regulatory programs Americans deem quite worthwhile. “Taxpayers ... demonstrated in two consecutive elections of a Republican Congress that the Washington establishment at its peril ignores the taxpayers’ voice,” the group’s annual report boasts. “CAGW stood shoulder to shoulder with the reformers and enjoyed a sense of accomplishment at this burst of energy from revitalized taxpayers.” CAGW contributor list, not surprisingly, reads like a who’s who of conservative interests, from Philip Morris Companies Inc. to the Columbia/HCA Healthcare Foundation Inc.

To be sure, CAGW is not the only Beltway organization whose partisan allegiances belie its nonprofit, nonpartisan status. At least a dozen other groups on both the left and the right do the exact same thing. Anyway, the fact that an argument may be ideologically motivated hardly means it’s wrong.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right, either. Listen closely the next time some smug good-government type starts criticizing pork: it’s an awful lot of fuss over what is, in fact, a very small amount of money. In the “Pig Book,” for example, CAGW claims last year’s budget included pork worth about $13.2 billion—or, as a pork-buster would say, “$13.2 billion!” Yes, you could feed quite a few hungry people with that much money, or you could give a bigger tax cut. But it’s less than one percent of the federal budget.

And it’s not even clear that all of the $13.2 billion of waste is really, well, waste. A good chunk of CAGW’s $13.2 billion in pork comes from a few dozen big-ticket items, costing tens of millions of dollars each, scattered through various appropriations measures, particularly the Pentagon’s. Among the programs: research of a space-based laser ($90 million), transportation improvements in Utah ($14 million), and military construction in Montana ($32 million).

But it’s hardly self-evident that these all constitute waste, as the pork-busters suggest. At least some national security experts believe the space-based laser is a necessary defense against rogue nations that might get their hands on nuclear missiles. A lot of that Utah money is to help Salt Lake City prepare for Olympic traffic. And, if you’ve ever been to Montana, you know that there are a lot of military bases scattered across that vast state—which means a lot of soldiers who need buildings in which to live, eat, and work. In other words, all of these serve some credible purpose.

The wastefulness of the smaller items is similarly open to interpretation. Remember Senator Inouye’s “Sushi Slush Fund Award”—the $127,000 for research on edible seaweed in Hawaii? It turns out that aquaculture is an emerging industry in Hawaii and that edible seaweed—known locally as “limu,” “ogo,” or “sea sprouts”—is “rich in complex carbohydrates and protein and low in calories,” according to the Honolulu Advertiser. “It’s a good source of vitamin A, calcium, and potassium, too.”

Yes, the federal government is paying $3 million for a telescope in South America. But it has to, because the telescope is part of a U.S. effort to explore the southern hemisphere sky—which, of course, is only visible from the southern hemisphere. Although the telescope will be located in Chile, it will be operated remotely from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “When completed, the telescope will hold tremendous promise for scientists and the federal government,” the university chancellor said when Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina announced the appropriation. “We at the university also have high hopes for what the project will mean for the North Carolina economy as well as for students of all ages—on this campus, across our state, and beyond.”

And Senator Stevens’s “Up Ship’s Creek Award”? The Ship Creek water project was part of a bill authorizing studies of environmental cleanup across the country. Some $100,000 went to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the impact of development on Ship Creek, which is Anchorage’s primary source of freshwater. Ironically, according to the Corps of Engineers, the study is exploring not only what kind of environmental precautions are necessary, but whether the federal government really has to pay for them, and whether local private entities might be convinced to foot part of the bill. In other words, one objective of the Ship Creek appropriation was to reduce government waste.

You could argue, as pork-busters do, that, while projects like these may serve some positive function in society—perhaps even deserving of government money—they should not be on the federal dime. Let the Hawaiians pay for their own calcium-rich dinners! Let Alaskans foot the bill for their own water study! But there’s a respectable argument that sometimes parochial needs are in fact a legitimate federal interest, particularly when it involves things like pollution and commerce that cross state lines.

Certainly, that’s the way a lot of people outside of Washington understand it. Last month, while the national media was busy flogging unthrifty lawmakers, several local newspapers rose to their defense. “We elect people to Congress not only to see to the nation’s defense and keep the currency sound but also to bring home some pork,” editorialized The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Pork can mean local jobs, local beautification, local pride, etc.” The Dayton Daily News defended one project, a museum on the history of flight, that appeared on CAGW’s hit list: “It is at the heart of a community effort that has been painstakingly nurtured for years by all manner of Daytonians. It combines the legitimate national purpose of recognizing the history of flight with the top-priority local purpose of getting Dayton recognized as a center of the history of flight.” Other papers were more critical: they wanted to know why their congressmen hadn’t brought home more bacon. “Alaskans aren’t going to sit still for being No. 2 for long,” Anchorage Daily News columnist Mike Doogan wrote in a spirited defense of pork. “We need the money. And we have our pride.”

This is not to say that all or even most of what gets called pork is defensible on its own terms. (Did Bedford County, Pennsylvania, which happens to be smack in the middle of Shuster’s rural district, really need a new airport when there were two others nearby?) Nor is it to say that the local interest in getting federal money should always trump the national interest in balancing the budget and distributing the federal largesse fairly. (Couldn’t the state of Pennsylvania have paid for the Bedford County airport instead?) Nor is it even to say that local interests defending pork aren’t being incredibly hypocritical—no one thinks an appropriation is pork when it’s his.

No, the point is simply that you can’t call something waste just because it makes a clever pun. “From what we can tell,” says John Raffetto, communications director for the Senate Transportation Committee, “CAGW does no research to determine what purpose the project serves other than to flip through the pages of the bill and find projects that sound funny. If it sounds funny, that’s pork. I have not heard from any member’s office that has told me they’ve received a call from CAGW to ask what purpose that project has served.”

Pork-busters concede they lack the time or resources to investigate items thoroughly. “Some may be worthy of consideration,” says CAGW media director Jim Campi. “Our concern is that, if the projects went through the process the way they were supposed to, there would be a [better] opportunity to judge them on their merits.”

This is the same argument that most animates McCain, Feingold, and other pork-busting lawmakers. But what constitutes a fair appropriations process? CAGW would have everyone believe that a project is pork if it is “not requested by the president” or if it “greatly exceeds the president’s budget request or the previous year’s funding.” Huh? The whole point of the appropriations process is to give Congress a chance to make independent judgments about spending priorities. Particularly when Republicans control one branch of government and Democrats the other—as is the case today—differences will exist. The Republican Congress used to routinely declare the president’s budget “dead on arrival.” Did this mean the entire congressional budget was pork?

Two other criteria for defining pork are equally shaky. Invoking the familiar pork-busting wisdom, CAGW says a program is pork if it was “not specifically authorized”—meaning it wasn’t in the original budget which contains general spending limits, but rather added on as part of the subsequent appropriations process, in which money is specifically allocated to each item. But the rationale for a separate budget and appropriations process is to allow Congress (and, for that matter, the president) an opportunity to change their minds about smaller items, as long as they stay within the broad guidelines of the budget agreement. CAGW also damns any projects “requested by only one chamber of Congress.” But, just as Congress can disagree with the president over a project’s merit, so the House can disagree with the Senate—that’s the reason the architects of the Constitution created two houses in the first place. (Also, keep in mind that one reason the Senate doesn’t propose as much pork is that senators—wary of getting stung in the national press for lacking frugality—will often wait to see how much pork the House passes. That way, they end up with the best of both worlds: they can quietly tell supporters that they backed the measure without ever incurring the wrath of pork-busting watchdogs.)

Make no mistake, though: Many pork-barrellers are trying to evade the scrutiny bills get when they move through the normal appropriations process. They stick in small bits of pork after hearings end because they know that nobody is going to vote against a multibillion-dollar bill just because it has a few million dollars of pork tucked in. And they can do so safe in the knowledge that, because there’s very little in the way of a paper trail, they will not suffer any public consequences—unless, of course, a watchdog group or enthusiastic reporter manages to find out.

Pork-busters call this strategy sleazy, and it is. But remember, the whole point of our Constitution is to harness mankind’s corrupt tendencies and channel them in constructive directions. In an oft-quoted passage of The Federalist Number 51, James Madison wrote, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary,” and “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” The Founders believed that sometimes local interests should trump national interests because they recognized it was a way to keep federal power in check. It’s true this process lends itself to a skewed distribution of benefits, with disproportionate shares going to powerful lawmakers. But, again, pork is such a small portion of the budget that “equalizing” its distribution would mean only modest funding changes here and there.

Which brings us to the final defense of pork, one Madison would certainly endorse. Even if every single pork-barrel project really were a complete waste of federal money, pork still represents a very cheap way to keep our sputtering legislative process from grinding to a halt. In effect, pork is like putting oil in your car engine: it lubricates the parts and keeps friction to a minimum. This is particularly true when you are talking about controversial measures. “Buying off potential coalition members with spending programs they favor is exactly what the Founders not only expected, but practiced,” political scientist James Q. Wilson has argued. He has also written: “If you agree with Madison, you believe in pork.”

Think of the NAFTA battle in 1993. Contentious to the bitter end, the fate of the agreement ultimately fell on the shoulders of a handful of congressmen, all of whom privately supported it but feared the political backlash if they voted for it. Clinton gave each of them a little pork—for example, a development bank in border states that ostensibly would provide start-up money for entrepreneurs who had lost jobs because of NAFTA. The bank was just another way to pump some federal money into these districts, but that was the whole point. Thanks to that money, NAFTA became politically viable; these lawmakers could tell their constituents, plausibly and truthfully, that there was something in it for their districts.

To take a more current example, just look at BESTEA. U.S. transportation infrastructure is famously inadequate; the Department of Transportation says unsafe roads cause 30 percent of all traffic fatalities. But, when fiscal conservatives questioned the pork in the original BESTEA last year, the measure failed, forcing Congress to pass an emergency extension. This year, a more permanent, six-year version will likely pass, largely because the appearance of a budget surplus has tipped the scales just enough so that the pork seems tolerable. As John W. Ellwood and Eric M. Patashnik wrote in The Public Interest several years ago (in what was the best defense of pork in recent memory): “Favoring legislators with small gifts for their districts in order to achieve great things for the nation is an act not of sin but of statesmanship.”

Last week, of course, BESTEA’s high pork content had fiscal conservatives downright apoplectic. “Frankly, this bill really is a hog,” Kasich said. “It is way over the top.” But, without the pork, there might be no highway bill at all. As one highway lobbyist told National Journal last year, “The projects are the glue that’s going to hold the damn thing together.” A former transportation official said: “I’ve always taken the point of view that every business has some overhead. If that’s what it costs to get a significant or a good highway bill, it’s worth the price.” Kasich would surely be aghast at such logic, but someday he and other fiscal conservatives might find it useful for their own purposes. Remember, they are the ones who say that balancing the budget will likely be impossible without severe and politically risky reforms of entitlements like Medicare. When the time comes to make those tough choices—and they need to pry a few extra votes from the opposition—you can bet they will gladly trade a little pork for their greater cause. They might feel guilty about it, but they shouldn’t. Pork is good. Pork is virtuous. Pork is the American way.

This article appeared in the April 20, 1998 issue of the magazine.