If supermarkets sold politics-themed piñatas, the bestseller would be shaped like a pork barrel. Pork-barrel spending is a favorite target of political pundits, online bloggers and even the very politicians who use the bacon, so to speak, to placate constituents and help their re-election campaigns. Entire organizations have the sole purpose of stirring up public outrage over projects like “the bridge to nowhere” and a $1-million appropriation for extraterrestrial contact.
We’re told that these fatty (or useless) projects are bankrupting our government and wasting our tax money. What we are almost never told is that pork-barrel spending is an insignificant portion of the federal budget. While instances of outrageous waste and abuse do happen, many pork-barrel projects are a worthy and wise use of public money.
Given the amount of attention given to pork, most people are under the impression that the dollar amount of pork spending is much bigger than it actually is. They mistakenly believe that getting rid of pork projects would have a significant impact on the ballooning budget deficit.
Yet even in the Citizens Against Government Waste’s annual “Pig Book,” the total cost of all pork projects in 2007 adds up to a mere $13.2 billion. This amounts to less than one percent of the annual federal budget. Eliminating every single pork project would barely make a dent in the budget crisis.
Furthermore, eliminating all pork projects would not necessarily be in the public interest. This is because not all “pork” is spent on peanut parades and teapot museums. In fact, most pork spending is money well spent. Examples include the millions of dollars funneled toward drug research, environmental protection and fixing other social problems.
A local example of beneficial “pork” is the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. Created with “pork” money, the task force sought to respond to a pressing local issue. In the years since its creation, the task force raised awareness in local immigrant communities, cultivated a network of informants and helped victims of trafficking.
Another example is the Orange County Water Reclamation Project. A water conservation/sustainability project in one of the most populous and driest areas in the country is hardly a waste of tax money, which is why you never read or hear about projects like these from the pork bashers.
These projects, along with hundreds of worthy programs across the nation, would never have been funded conventionally. This is because federal spending tends to be reactive and not proactive. As a group, Congress might fund FEMA for disaster relief, but they are unlikely to fund levies before the disaster happens. They might fund defense spending, but are less likely to recognize the value of wetland restoration.
In some ways, pork-barrel spending provides a way to get around the relatively unresponsive structure of the federal government. A congressman may think of a national alcohol rehabilitation program as unimportant, but he will often respond to the need for one in his district, where he can see the impact of abuse and face the consequences of doing nothing in the next election.
Pork spending can be used to fund innovative and forward-thinking projects that seek to improve the lives of the American people. It requires restraint on the part of individual legislators but hardly deserves the unsubtle and cynical treatment that it almost always receives.
Mengfei Chen is a third-year international studies major. She can be reached at email@example.com.