All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1993

Adventures in Porkland: How Washington Wastes Your Money and Why They Won’t Stop

Legislators sneak massive boondoggles into appropriations bills.

This concise, angry, intensely readable result of a year’s investigation of Congress should rouse every taxpayer’s rage. A $19 million study of cow flatulence; $80 million for Steamtown, USA (a national railroad museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania); $2 billion each for two useless waterways in Alabama and Louisiana—Brian Kelly’s catalog of “pork” (federal money spent by Representatives and Senators for their own constituents) is outrageous. So is the way legislators sneak these boondoggles into appropriations bills, and squash attempts by “porkbusters” to stop it.

Since the House of Representatives was designed to be closely attentive, thanks to two-year terms, to the interests of voters in Congressional districts, the possibility for pork was built into the system. As America grew, so did possibilities for pork, which is now running hog wild. The 1987 highway bill had 152 pork projects costing $1.3 billion; 1992 highway spending included 480 projects costing $5.4 billion. Kelly puts the 1992 budget’s total pork at $97 billion.

Pork transcends party and ideology; free-spending Democrats like Senator Robert Byrd (who brought West Virginia $2 billion in pork in two years) are matched by Republicans like Senator Alphonse D’Amato (known as “Senator Pothole” for getting public works pork for New York) and Representative Joe (“Steamtown”) McDade. “Fiscally conservative” Congressmen both accommodate and emulate porkbarreling colleagues.

The President has power to fight pork, but Kelly reveals George Bush as a weakling not above his own election-year porkbarreling. Former Budget Director Richard Darman comes off even worse: a Machiavellian pragmatist who greased the 1990 budget pact by horsetrading with Byrd, swapping pork for “spending caps.”

Congressional greed bears much blame for pork, but Kelly rightly fingers the public as the real culprit. Congressmen bring pork home because voters want government to care for them at others’ expense, and reelect politicians who do it.

Is pork bad? “It depends on what you think the federal government is supposed to do for you and everyone else in the country . . . . Evaluating pork requires you to ask some fundamental questions: Should the federal government really be doing this? . . . Just because a project or program sounds like a good idea, can we afford to do it? Just because it doesn’t seem to cost me anything, is it really free?”

Kelly suggests voting porkbarreling incumbents out (good idea!); a balanced-budget amendment; a line-item veto; term limits; more vigorous Presidential leadership; a re-thinking of government’s proper role; and a nationwide decision to forsake pork (my favorite).

Adventures in Porkland reveals a fatal flaw in the mixed economy: It is all too human for voters to want government to spend money on them, and politically sensible for politicians to do so, but the results are ruinous: a population addicted to handouts, a corrupt politics, an overspending legislature, and an economy enfeebled by the resultant debt burden. The only solution is to rout the paternalist philosophy of government, and Adventures in Porkland provides valuable ammunition for the fight.

Dr. Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan and an Adjunct Scholar with the Midland, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

  • John Attarian (1956-2004) was a free-lance writer with a Ph.D. in economics. He wrote for numerous national publications and was an editorial advisor to Modern Age.