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Unsavory pork & decentralization

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Pamela Clouser McCann

Bridges to nowhere, airports named for legislators, and construction signage regarding taxpayer dollars at work—these are typical accoutrements of legislative office.  Showing your constituents what you have done for them on the Hill can be a challenge, but members of Congress often do so by using federal grants to state and local areas.  Building infrastructure can be a powerful and visible symbol that something good has been done.

In political science and public policy scholarship these federal dollars funneled to districts are in the realm of distributive politics, of which pork barrel spending and earmarks (when funds are specially targeted to one or two, perhaps a handful of localities) are special cases.  In 2004 Diana Evans published a book on this issue called Greasing the Wheels:  Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress.  Professor Evans highlights for us that—regardless of their bad reputation—pork barrels and earmarks allow Congress to build supporting a group of legislators in order to get bills passed. The negative connotations of pork barrels and earmarks are built into their very names.  Pork barrels (as Evans notes in her introduction) were rations of salted pork preserved in barrels provided by slave owners.  Hugh Rawson elaborated in a 2007 blog post by quoting a 1919 writer:

“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.”[1]

Earmark is a term similarly derived from livestock.  Farmers often clip notches into the ears of their hogs, cattle, and other animals in order to distinguish them from one another and categorize them in meaningful ways (e.g., date of birth, parentage). Notwithstanding the origins of these terms, the distributive benefits our members of Congress can garner for their own constituents is an important part of their job. Another congressional scholar, Frances Lee, notes that congressional bills are rarely crafted just with dollars for bridges in Alaska.  Instead, there are “many ways pork can be packaged” (2004, 205) such as formula, block, categorical, and demonstration project grants, as well as contracts, loans, and other methods that distribute dollars to districts.

In a paper my colleague, Anthony Bertelli, and I published earlier this year we consider the flip side of the conventional idea that legislators can be brought on as bill supporters when there are distributive benefits for their districts.  We ask the question: what are the conditions under which legislators would vote againstfiscal transfers to their states?  We argue that members of Congress, who care about the ability to claim credit and show their constituents they are fighting for their interests, think carefully about their intergovernmental context and the fact that executive branch agencies disseminate federal dollars and implement federal programs.  When members are voting on fiscal transfers, they are also voting on the decentralization of administration (such as when states are given grants for highways or to construct a hospital, state administrative agencies typically receive these funds and participate in the process in some manner).  This additional layer of administration, though, increases the effort that legislators have to exert in order to make sure the money actually makes it to their district.  These legislative efforts can entail meetings with agencies, letters to administrators, calls to extol the reasons why their state or district deserves the funds, as well as other methods.  House members, in particular, may worry that a governor from the opposite party may choose to not distribute dollars to their district.  These same mechanisms are in play at the national level:  presidents may urge federal agencies to ignore partisans from the other party.[2]  In sum, party ties between members of Congress, their governors, as well as the president can decrease the oversight costs of members’ and changes in costs downstream.  We find evidence that these changes in costs significantly influence whether members of Congress in both chambers support fiscal decentralizations as bills are crafted.  In the end, members of Congress are not necessarily rushing a barrel or notching livestock for their constituents.  Instead, we suggest that members are strategically considering whether their votes will actually end up with a benefit in their district.


Bertelli, Anthon M. and Pamela J. Clouser McCann.  2018.  “Decentralizing Pork: Congressional Roll-Call Voting, Decentralized Administration, and Distributive Politics,”  Legislative Studies Quarterly 43:69-100.

Evans, Diana.  2004.  Greasing the Wheels:  Using Pork Barrel Projects to Build Majority Coalitions in Congress. Cambridge University Press.

Lee, Frances E. 2004. “Bicameralism and Geographic Politics : Allocating Funds in the House and Senate.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 29: 185–213.


[1]For the full story, visit

[2]See, for instance,

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