Why Do We Say...?

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A “Call it Pork or Necessity, but Alaska Comes Out Far Above the Rest in Spending.” This headline—from The New York Times—was for a story about the $388 billion federal Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2005. “Consolidated” is an apt word for this annual exercise: The act is nearly 1,700 pages long or, looking at it another way, more than a foot thick. Buried within it are thousands of local projects for which funds have been specially set aside. In official congressional parlance, grants of this sort are called “earmarks.” Most people call them pork . The overall spending act itself is the pork barrel.

Not all pork is bad pork. Many local projects are worthy enough. Others may raise eyebrows. For example: $25,000 to study mariachi music in schools in Las Vegas, Nevada, $75,000 for the Paper Industry Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin, and a cool million to the Missouri Pork Producers Federation to examine the possibility of obtaining energy from what is politely called “hog waste.”

Dipping into the federal larder to finance local projects is a time-honored custom. The earliest example of pork barrel in the political sense in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a story in the Westminster Gazette of June 1, 1909, that might almost have been written yesterday: “They [meaning Democratic representatives in this instance] have preferred to take for their own constituencies whatever could be got out of the Congressional ‘pork barrel.’” And as reported in the New York Evening Post a few years later: “The River and Harbor bill is the pork barrel par excellence” (May 12, 1916).

Ultimately, the metaphor stems from the practice in the pre-refrigeration era of preserving pork in large wooden barrels of brine. The political usage may have been inspired by the distribution of rations of salt pork to slaves on plantations. “Oftentimes the eagerness of the slaves would result in a rush upon the pork barrel,” wrote a “journalist” named C. C. Maxey in 1919, “in which each would strive to grab as much as possible for himself. Members of Congress in the stampede to get their local appropriation items into the omnibus river and harbor bills behaved so much like negro slaves rushing the pork barrel, that these bills were facetiously styled ‘pork-barrel’ bills.” But one has to accept Mr. Maxey’s interpretation on faith; no paper trail to support it has been found.

Whatever the exact source of the metaphor, since its coinage the pork barrel has grown immensely in size, with Alaska, as pointed out in the Times headline, getting far more than what some think should be its share. Federal spending in the state amounted to nearly $12,000 per person in 2003, about double the national average. Credit for this generally is given to Alaska’s longtime (since 1968) Republican senator, Ted Stevens. As chairman of the highly influential appropriations committee from 1997 through 2004, except for an 18-month period when Democrats controlled the Senate, Stevens was in excellent position to bring home the bacon for his state.

Alaska’s single member of the House, Don Young, has also done his part. As chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee, he steered so much money for bridges and roads to his home state that Washingtonians sometimes referred to him as “Mr. Concrete.” Representative Young apparently prefers the pork metaphor, however. Comparing himself to Senator Stevens, he told a gathering of Washington Republicans, with tongue in cheek, but only partly, “If he’s the chief porker, I’m upset. I’d like to be a little oinker, myself.”

P.S. Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister, served as chaplain of the Senate from 1903 until his death in 1909. When asked, “Do you pray for the senators, Dr. Hale?” he is said to have replied, “No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.”