Most dictionaries define pork as a government project or appropriation that yields jobs or benefits to a specific locale and patronage opportunities to its political representative.
A great article over at Harper's Magazine advises “pork-barreling as a legislative epithet is a pre—Civil War coinage that referred to the custom of handing out salt pork to slaves, who would crowd around the barrels that held it, and indeed, members of Congress have raided the federal treasury for home-district boondoggles ever since the earliest days of the republic.” John Ferejohn’s book, Pork Barrel Politics: Rivers and Harbors Legislation, 1947-1968 confirms this explanation.
To qualify specifically as pork legislation must meet seven criteria per the Citizens Against Government Waste and the Congressional Porkbusters Coalition. They are:
*the legislation must be requested by only one chamber of Congress;
*cannot be specifically authorized;
*cannot be competitively awarded;
*has not been requested by the President
*greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding;
*serves only a local or special interest.
The earliest form of pork barrel spending would be the Bonus Bill of 1817. It was introduced by John C. Calhoun and it involved highway construction linking the East and South with the western frontier. Part of the controversy was the source of the funds….an earnings bonus from the Second Bank of the United States. The proposed bill was eventually vetoed by President James Madison.
Calhoun actually justified his pork-barrel spending as many Congressmen do today. He used the Constitution to bolster his argument citing Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 which Calhoun argued actually gives Congress the power to spend by stating, “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but by consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”
Years later President Grover Cleveland would also use the Constitution to support his nickname as the “king of the veto” because he rejected hundreds of congressional spending bills during his two terms. He continually stated he could find no support in the Constitution for the appropriations.
Over at the site for Citizens Against Government Waste they have a well-documented discussion regarding the history of pork-barrel spending. I’ve included some of it here:
Washington insiders have espoused this “power of the purse” to validate Congress’s mushrooming appetite for pork. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) have argued eliminating earmarks would equate to an unconstitutional delegation of spending discretion to the executive branch. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that earmarking has been going on “since we were a country.” A spokeswoman for lobbying from Cassidy and Associates said, “Earmarking has been going on since the time of George Washington.”
The First Congress rejected a bill to loan money to a glass manufacturer after several members challenged the constitutionality of the proposal. In a debate during the Second Congress over a bill to pay a bounty to New England cod fishermen, Rep. Hugh Williamson of South Carolina argued that it was unconstitutional to gratify one part of the Union by oppressing the other…destroy this barrier,-and it is not a few fishermen that will enter, but all manner of persons; people of every trade and occupation may enter in at the breach, until they have eaten up the bread of our children.
Thomas Jefferson made a similar prediction in a letter to James Madison dated March 6, 1796, challenging Madison’s proposition for improvements to roads used in a system of national mail delivery. Jefferson wrote:
Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress and their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest.”
Madison, the Father of the Constitution, actually vetoed the public works bill stating the clause “to provide for the common defense and general welfare” did not grant Congress additional powers not enumerated in Article 1, Section 8.
It would be hard to imagine a more convoluted, inaccurate, and self-serving interpretation of the Constitution and U.S. history. The Founding Fathers deemed that Congress could only spend money in pursuant to those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. The 10th Amendment leaves all other responsibilities to the states.
…and like many things dealing with the U.S. Constitution the debate regarding what constitutes appropriate appropriations will continue.