Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is there anything wrong with a little pork barrel spending?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:06 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid disagrees with the president on earmarks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid disagrees with the president on earmarks.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Harry Reid spoke out in favor of earmarks, disagreeing with President Obama
  • Julian Zelizer says Reid is right; there are benefits from dispensing political pork
  • He says presidents can gain leverage with Congress if they permit earmarks
  • Zelizer: Earmarks enable members of Congress to respond to local needs

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Last week, a member of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, actually defended the way that Congress does its business. Give him credit for originality.

Rather than the usual refrain of blasting Washington as a dysfunctional and corrupt city, Reid disagreed with President Barack Obama and said: "I have been a fan of earmarks since I got here the first day. I disagree -- underline, underscored, big exclamation mark -- with Obama. He's wrong." He opposes the ban on earmarks that Congress put into place three years ago following the Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections.

Earmarks, historically referred to as a form of "pork-barrel spending", are measures that House and Senate members add to bills to benefit people in their own districts.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In response to Reid's comments, there was the predictable backlash of criticism. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, warned that "The American public think it's a sick way to run a business, to have to bribe somebody to get something done and politicians use it to look good at home." In The Wall Street Journal, Coburn pushed back against calls to bring back a little pork by writing, "restoring earmarks in today's Congress would be like opening a bar tab for a bunch of recovering alcoholics."

But Reid has a point, and many Republicans who spent much of their careers mastering the art of congressional spending agree with him -- even though many are scared to say so in public. Indeed, even with the recent "ban", according to the conservative Citizens against Government Waste, the 2014 budget included almost $2.7 billion in spending for projects requested by individual legislators (much of which went to defense and national security projects). Legislators have found new ways (called lettermarking or phonemarking) to obtain these kinds of appropriations, though in smaller scale than before.

Congressional earmarks and pork barrel spending have a long history in the United States. They have served important purposes that are too often overlooked.

Most important, this kind of congressional spending has been vital to successful negotiation on Capitol Hill. Presidents and party leaders have traditionally depended on their influence to insert measures in congressional spending bills to persuade legislators to join them in voting for key legislation that is important to the national interest. Often, earmarked spending has been the most important tool in the effort to persuade legislators to vote against their interests or their traditional position.

During the battle over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson needed as many votes as possible to overcome the Southern filibuster against the bill in the Senate. One of the ways in which Johnson won over a key vote, that of Arizona Democrat Carl Hayden, was to let him know that the administration would throw its support behind a Central Arizona Water Project that the senator's constituents desperately wanted.

In exchange Hayden, one of the many Westerners who had traditionally refused to vote to end any filibuster, agreed to vote for cloture if his support was needed in the end. Without a little pork, Johnson would have been unable to obtain his support.

We can even see how earmarked spending has proved effective at the state and local level. In New York, the state famously littered university campuses in as many legislative districts as possible so that the state system would have broad and durable support. This worked. The outcome was ongoing, bipartisan support for investment in higher education that has been vital to the residents of New York.

Earmarked spending also fits into our respect for decentralized and localized decision-making. When legislators lobby for spending within their district, they are usually responding to the pressures and demands that emanate from the local level.

The 'Inside Politics' forecast
2015: The year of revenge?
Santorum, Romney clash on earmarks

To be sure there are many examples of outrageous earmarks that don't have much justification or value. Political speeches and newspaper stories are filled with accounts of this kind of useless pork.

However, for every "bridge to nowhere" there are congressional earmarks that fund university research and public works programs that play a vital role for Americans.

Peg McGlinch writes in U.S. News and World Report that the Minnesota congressional delegation obtained about $2 million in earmarked funding that was used to provide more services for members of the National Guard who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Earmarks," she writes, "have funded hundreds of job training programs, paved roads that reduced traffic, supported the police officers protecting our streets, underwritten research on diseases, revitalized blighted neighborhoods, developed technologies to improve national defense, built libraries and schools and given children opportunities to learn."

Earmarked spending is a good way to build broad and durable party support for important public policies. Very often, crafting programs that provide pork to legislators has been an effective way to broaden support for a policy.

During the New Deal, FDR was keen to provide money to the districts of key Northern legislators so that they would become politically invested in his public works program. That program offered key relief to American workers during the height of the Great Depression.

The complex patchwork of military defense contracting throughout the Sunbelt, often a result of legislative efforts to get money to valuable districts, was essential for Republicans in building support for a muscular national security policy against the Soviet Union.

So earmarks have their function and Reid has a point. Members of both parties understand that this has been key. The legislative process is not pretty, but there have been many moments when Congress has accomplished big things -- and earmarked spending has been critical to success.

It might be time to push back a little on our anti-Washington sentiment and look more carefully at the value of some of the seemingly uglier sides of our political process. Indeed, restoring the pork barrel might help move Congress beyond its current dysfunctional state. Earmarks would be the place to start.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT