Why Do Members of Congress Pass Pork & Earmarks?

Members of Congress have passed pork spending throughout history.
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In the U.S. Congress, earmarked spending that is allocated to a project in an individual member's district is sometimes called "pork." This moniker refers to the fact that such earmarks tend to fatten the national budget. While earmarks are sometimes controversial, members of Congress continue to pass such spending for a variety of political reasons. Despite a formal ban on earmarks, members of Congress have found ways to work around it.

1 Pleasing Voters

One of the major motivations for earmarking is to please voters with a special project in a specific congressional district. Such projects tend to be noteworthy and highly public so that a member of Congress can publicly attach her name to a well-regarded project in her district. Some earmarked construction projects include the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, North Carolina. Other earmarks create jobs and economic growth in a district, which a representative or senator running for reelection can use as evidence in his favor.

2 Forging Compromise

Pork spending plays a critical role in the tit for tat process that moves legislation in Congress. Oftentimes, a member of Congress will be undecided on his vote on a piece of legislation. One political party might have an interest in securing his vote -- which might be a tiebreaker -- so pork spending will be proposed as a way to coax that person's vote. This compromise aspect of pork spending dates to early American history. A 1789 bill to build lighthouses, for example, was only passed after representatives from Virginia were promised lighthouses in their districts.

3 Proper Financial Allocations

Each year, the executive branch of government -- the president's administration -- proposes the nation's federal budget. This, however, is somewhat problematic because the president is not capable of seeing every individual financial need across the country. An argument in favor of pork spending is that individual members of Congress best understand the needs of their districts and can contribute their knowledge to the creation of the federal budget.

4 Controversies

Earmarked spending is sometimes controversial, with opponents arguing the practice results in wasteful and corrupt spending. In 2010 and 2011, both the House and Senate passed a ban on pork spending with the belief that such spending was partly responsible for the growing national debt. Others were concerned that the spending enabled members of Congress to pass funding that benefitted themselves and not necessarily their districts. Outside influence from lobbyists was another concern, with many believing that the benefits of pork only accrued to a few powerful interests. Despite the ban on earmarks, such district-specific projects still pass through Congress when a government agency, rather than a member of Congress, requests the funds, which is not formally considered an earmark.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan, Textbooks.com, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.