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writing for godot

Pork-Barrel Spending, Earmarks and Logrolling

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Written by Richard Crews   
Friday, 25 March 2011 08:05


Who would have thunk it? Earmarks are gone!

The U. S. Congress--both the Senate and the House of Representatives--has killed earmarking. As candidates for federal office, members of Congress have often mounted impassioned campaign rhetoric against earmarks. They have even "agreed" from time to time to ban them. But now it has actually happened. Right now (and ostensibly for the next two years) our federal legislators are refraining from tagging special home-town funding onto national spending bills.


Some key definitions:

Pork-barrel spending: The term "pork-barrel" originally referred to a container for unwanted extras from slaughtered pigs. A hundred-years-and-more ago it acquired a second, humorously related, meaning: a political candidate would climb on an inverted pork barrel on the street corner by the local general store to address the crowd. He would shout and wave his hands and make extravagant promises about all the benefits he would send back home if he were elected. (I say "he" because all politicians were men back in those days--the first woman was elected to Congress in 1916.) The term "pork-barrel spending" came to mean unnecessary government expenditures that were allocated for political reasons.

Earmarks: The term "earmarks" originally referred to tags put on the ears of cattle so they could be readily identified. The term was extended to the political sphere. Once elected, a politician would tag special spending provisions in national legislation so that they were designed to benefit his constituents back home. Sometimes this was done with a degree of subtlety, for example, a defense contract would be structured so that only a particular, home-town company could actually compete for it. But often earmarking was far more blatant than this.

Logrolling: Logrolling, or birling, is a sport that originated in the lumberjack tradition of the northeastern United States and Canada. It involves standing on a log that is floating in a river and spinning it with ones feet, either to cooperate with, or to try to throw off another competitor. In legislative circles, logrolling is exchanging of favors such as trading votes to gain passage of actions of interest to each legislative member. A politician would be obligated to vote for other legislators' earmarked legislation if they voted for his--and, more importantly, to agree to greater spending measures than he would otherwise approve of. In other words, if everybody cooperated and "rolled the log" together, then nobody fell off.


Some key quotations:

On Congressional spending: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about some real money."

On the difference between a million dollars and a billion dollars: "Most of us don't have to count the zeroes as carefully as Warren Buffet and the U.S. Congress do."

On the evil and pervasive influence of spending-power: "We have the best legislators money can buy."


One of the most notorious examples of earmarking in recent years was the Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere." In 2005, at the behest of Representative Don Young and Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Congress approved $400 million to build an enormous bridge, the Gravina Island Bridge, in a sparsely inhabited (the island had 50 inhabitants) and little used (but it had an airport) corner of Alaska. While running for governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin promoted the bridge but after the project had been killed in Congress, she claimed credit for defeating it ("I said, 'thanks, but no thanks' "), but kept the money ($223 million) for other Alaskan projects and continued with another federal grant using $26 million to build a highway to the non-existent bridge.

Earmarks and logrolling have been a major part--politically and financially--of the federal landscape for many years. They particularly ballooned during the early years of the 21st century. Prior to 2000, there were typically several hundred earmarks each year totaling, at most, a few billion dollars. In 2005 the number had grown to some 16,000 earmarks totaling $48 billion; in 2006, the total was $72 billion.

Now earmarks are gone, for now at least--perhaps even for the next two years--or longer.
 

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