The Dangerous New Politics of Pork Projects

Long considered the king of pork, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, who died on Monday of complications from gallbladder surgery, used the earmark process unapologetically to drive lucrative government contracts toward companies in his district. Some of his constituents even argued that he kept his hardscrabble Rust Belt district alive through earmarks. But Murtha was not the only politician to earn the enduring loyalty of his constituents through pork-barrel projects and constituent services. For five decades, Sen. Daniel Inouye has been Hawaii's favorite son for driving federal resources to the island state. In West Virginia, 33 publicly funded buildings bear the name of Sen. Robert Byrd, the man responsible for the money that allowed them to be built.

That's politics as usual. But lately, bringing home pork has become as much of a political liability as an IRS audit. Since the 2008 election, Republicans, keen to tap populist anger from their fiscal-conservative base and constituencies such as tea-party activists, have presented out-of-control spending—and people like Murtha—as the problem in WashingtonPolls suggest the strategy might be working.

Statistically speaking, localized pork-barrel spending isn't sizeable enough to have a meaningful impact on the deficit, something then-candidate Barack Obama never tired of noting in debates with campaign rival John McCain. "It's one of those cotton-candy issues: you get all huffed and puffed about it, but when you bite in, there's not much there," says Stephen Hess, a fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank. Only about 2 percent of federal spending goes to isolated projects, compared with, for instance, 20 percent to Medicare and 21 percent to national security.

But there are ways of grabbing cash for your state besides earmarked projects. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) demanded and won full federal funding of additional Medicaid costs associated with health-care reform in Nebraska only, in exchange for his vote in favor of the bill. (He then changed his mind after a spate of bad press.) Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) didn't help Democrats' public relations when she publicly hinged her health-care vote on bill elements that included $100 million for ongoing Katrina recovery efforts in her state.

Since taking office during a deep recession that required emergency injections of funds and support for capital markets, President Obama and Democrats have been on the defensive when it comes to spending and appropriations. The public seems to be punishing them for overspending, rather than thanking them for averting a depression with the $787 billion stimulus package and the second half of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. At the end of January, 59 percent of the country thought Obama and the Democratically controlled Congress were simply being too loose with the purse strings. And with general government spending now under fire, earmarked projects are also being criticized.

Earmarks have very little to do with many of the Democrats' signature policy goals, such as health-care reform or cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, but some conservative groups are attempting to link them. At last week's Tea Party Convention in Nashville, participants took direct aim at the issue of "superfluous earmark spending," as Ohio activist Pat McCaskey put it. Asked by a NEWSWEEK reporter what spending should be curtailed, she responded, "All of it."

All of it—except, perhaps, money that's actually doing something good. "Wasteful spending is usually spent somehow outside of your district," Obama noted to House Republicans during his recent question-and-answer session with the GOP representatives. "The spending in your district tends to seem pretty sensible." Indeed, the criticism of federal spending is muted on the local level, especially among cops, teachers, or community-service workers whose jobs could be eliminated without a rescue from Washington. State or municipal workers in cash-strapped areas might run their lawmakers out of town if the money were to dry up.

Capitalizing on what might be seen as hypocrisy among his critics, President Obama called out unnamed lawmakers who had denounced and voted against the stimulus, and who then attempted to take credit for bringing home sizzling bacon by appearing at events celebrating projects funded by the same federal-stimulus package. "Let's face it: some of you have been at the ribbon cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities," he pointed out in the Jan. 29 question-and-answer session. Further exposed by The Washington Times, a handful of GOP lawmakers in Ohio, Georgia, Utah, Alabama, and South Carolina—including Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and Reps. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.)—were caught requesting grant money for local projects that they had initially voted against funding. Ostensibly caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the legislators have nearly uniformly offered the defense that they were against the money being distributed, but once the measure passed, they wanted to make sure their constituents got a piece of it. Several lawmakers, including Bennett, were even caught admitting the upside of the stimulus, something they had disputed publicly..

But heading toward November's midterm elections, Democrats acknowledge that the onus remains on them to show voters that federal money, whether for earmarks or imperative stimulus spending, isn't being spent frivolously. "We clearly need to acknowledge the fact that spending needs to get under control," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen tells NEWSWEEK. "But we'll also have to point to specific measures that have been made to reduce the deficit and really revive the economy." It's a strategy heavily dependent on key economic indicators like unemployment, job creation, and GDP growth.

The real debate behind pork procurement, however, might not pit Democrats against Republicans, but rather incumbents against challengers. The latter often are at a disadvantage when facing off against seated congressmen and -women because, unlike their opponents, they can't point to specific things they've brought home for their constituents. This year, tea-party activists might turn that logic on its head; they've vowed to only support candidates who agree to sweeping cuts in spending. But what sounds good in theory might not be good governing. "Bringing things back to your district is part of being an elected representative," says Robert Huckfeldt, a professor of politics and public opinion at the University of California, Davis. "It's really the way electoral politics is designed to work."