Skip to main content

Pork Barrel Politics

Pork Barrel Politics

Pork is not a partisan issue and not a new one. The term “pork barrel” is over a century old in its political sense, an allusion to the regular handing out of joints of salted pork, stored in barrels, by plantation owners to slave families before the Civil War. Because it is believed with nearly religious fervor among many politicians of all stripes that pork is the sure-fire means to lifelong reelection, it has proved impossible to kill. As Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly in the 1960s, famously explained, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”

Here’s a case in point.

The conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R. Oklahoma) and the liberal Sen. Barak Obama (D. Illinois) have sponsored a bill, S. 2590, and have gathered 29 cosponsors of both parties.

The bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to establish a user-friendly website and post on it the amounts and recipients of all government contracts, grants, insurance, loans, and financial assistance that exceeded $25,000. None of this is secret information (any that was would be exempt); it is simply now hard to find in a systematic way. The bill has the backing of the Bush administration. As Clay Johnson, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, explained, “What we like is transparency. We believe that the more public information that’s available about how programs work, about where we’re spending our money, who’s getting grants, who’s getting contracts, the more accountability there is.”

It was passed unanimously in a voice vote by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Majority Leader Bill Frist hoped to bring it up before the summer recess, and Senate passage seemed assured. It is hard, after all, to vote against transparency in government, especially where money is concerned.

But Senate rules allow any senator, regardless of party, to put a “hold” on a bill, no questions asked. This keeps the bill from being considered. Senate rules further allow the holding senator to do so in secret, and the public is invited to butt out.

That is what has happened with S. 2590. Who the secret senator is no one knows (or rather, those who do know aren’t talking). However a website called is trying to smoke him or her out. It has invited readers to contact their senators, ask them to deny that they are the secret senator, and e-mail Porkbusters the responses.

So far, 27 senators have done denied being the secret holder. That leaves 73 senators who have not. At least one senator’s office, that of Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R., Texas), refused to say if she is the anonymous holder and hung up on the person calling.

Twenty years ago there wasn’t much the public could do about such shenanigans in high places. But today, thanks to the incredible power of the Internet, there is. I hope Porkbusters is able to demonstrate how the balance of power between public officials and the public is changing by outing the secret senator.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.