'The Fleecing Of America', the pork barrel, and esoteric research on your tax dollars

Reading this thread discussing whether space exploration is worthwhile, I got to thinking of a related issue. Americans will likely be familiar with the regular NBC TV news feature, ‘The Fleecing Of America’, which usually slams some government funded project for egregiously wasting our tax dollars. Usually it’s the dreaded pork barrel: Horrors! Federal tax money was spent on a subway in Los Angeles, or highway improvements in Alaska. Or, sometimes it’s esoteric research that doesn’t seem to have any direct benefit to John Q. Taxpayer. Oh no! $320,000 of my tax money went to study chickenpox in hamsters. And my take on this is that these complaints are harebrained. I don’t feel ripped off if I don’t approve the way every single dollar of my taxes is spent, or if I don’t derive a personal benefit from it. There should be a sense of plurality, that public funds need to be spent on a variety of things, each of which may not benefit each individual. Similarly with the pork barrel arguement. Since the vast majority of income tax is paid to the federal government, some states not even taxing income, why shouldn’t some of that tax money go back to the cities where people live?

Now to be fair to NBC, I expect federally funded hamster research to be sound science that will attempt to advance the fight against ignorance. I expect large amounts doled out for infrastructure improvements to be duly accounted for and not misspent. If that is the spirit behind ‘The Fleecing Of America’, then bravo NBC. But I can’t say I’ve picked up on that from their five-minute segments.

What do you think? To what extent do you demand to benefit personally from the way your tax money is spent?

Not every government project need benefit all individuals in the country equally or even at all.

Nevertheless there is some pretty egregious government spending that is extremely hard to justify in any fashion. For a really good read on some of these things I highly recommend Parliament of Whores by P.J. O’Rourke. It’s a little dated but not extremely so. It is, however, very funny (O’Rourke used to be the editor for National Lampoon) and in some fashions scary. One particular tidbit I recall from the book is a federal mohair subsidy. As O’Rourke mentions in the book what the hell is mohair anyway and when was it that the US economy was nearly brought to its knees by wild fluctuations in the price of mohair?

Another I recall is a substantial subsidy for honey farmers such that they make out like bandits while the subsidy is not justifiable any any grounds.

There are many more such things. Read the book then re-visit this thread and let us know what you think.

It’s only pork barrel spending when it’s not benefiting you.


I can second Parliament of Whores. PJ is that rare individual who can mix humor with intelligence in order to educate. Great book.

Pork barrel spending has been called the “oil in the machine of democracy,” and for good reason. It is inevitable in a representative democracy with as diverse and geographically spread population as the US that not all bills will be of similar interest to all people. Thus, congressional horse-trading is born: you support my school lunch bill, and I’ll back you when you want to build a bridge in your district.

In that way, pork allows Congress to get things done.

I’m not keenly happy about some of the things my money is spent on, but if pork is a natural byproduct of representative democracy, I’m perfectly willing to live with it – it sure beats the alternative.

Egregious examples are (hopefully) kept somewhat in check by an active press (like NBC’s feature). It seems to me that any “cure” for pork would be far worse than the disease.

And let me third the recommendation to read PJ – not just Parliament of Whores, either; anything by the man is worthwhile reading.

Pork lands disproportionately in states who have senior members of the appropriations comittee. The recent stink over the mobile cannon system the Army didn’t want, and a battleship the Navy didn’t need among others are prime examples of wasted tax dollars.

Spectre of Pithecanthropus, I hope you and others like you Do take an interest in how our tax dollars are spent. Since the vast majority of the american public doesn’t care, the spending like a drunken uncle mentality will continue.

Well, naturally, I take an interest. Government projects have to be carried out with appropriate oversight and budgeting, and not haphazardly. For example, I certainly would get worked up over actual waste and fraud in the space program, but not against the idea of the space program, or the fact that funds get allocated to it. And the same would be true of the projects I mentioned in the OP.

Maybe not…

This might be a topic worthy of its own thread but I’ve always thought the President should have a line-item-veto. So many of these pieces of pork only get through as riders on the coattails of useful bills. Even bills with completely different purposes. If the President is hot to get that particular bill passed then a few other items will hitch the ride. With a line-item-veto the President could strike off the worst of these things. If the item in question is truly good then it can go back to Congress for a congressional override of the veto. As it stands now the President has to pass the bill as presented to him…all of it…good and bad.

Congress did pass a bill allowing a line-item veto for awhile, during the Clinton administration, but it was struck down as unconstitutional, as IIRC, it violated seperation of powers, giving the President power to alter and “write” bills. You would need an amendment to have a line-item veto.

[rant]I hate pork! I hate pork! I hate pork! Just in case I did not make myself clear,


Whack-a-Mole is right. We need a line item veto badly, and it is way past time we got it. If the federal government focused on essentials, like disputes between states and foreign policy, the local governments could be much more accountable to the people for how they spend their money. I am offended that what I consider to be vast sums of my money are taken from me to do things such as to fund studies regarding the mating habits of japanese quail, belgian endive, or (my personal favorite) a study to determine why orangutans smell bad. (After 4.5 million dollars, they determined that the main reason had to do with perspiration). I work almost six months of every year just to pay the government. I don’t mind paying my fair share, but it infuriates me when it is given to others to do research for projects like these. Funding such nonsense is not the role of government, it is for the private sector. I don’t consider pork to be the grease that oils the machine. It is the bane of our republic. If a project or an idea is important enough, it will pass the legislature or the people will throw the legislators out and put in legislators that will give them what they want. If ia piece of legislation is not important enough to get passed without the horse trading, maybe it shouldn’t be done in the first place.

A big government is inefficient by nature, and we would all be much better off if the federal government were smaller and more efficient. If the states want to screw around with their taxpayers’ money, that is fine. Those who disagree with such policies can move to another state.[/rant]

I hope I don’t come off sounding conservative by this post. Please pardon the rant. It’s Friday. :wink:

The problem with the line item veto – and the reason it was found unconstitutional – is that it fails to recognize that a bill presented to the president for signature is by definition a bundle of compromises. This is a good thing – compromise is vital in a representative democracy. Anyway, allowing the executive to unravel any or all of those compromises at the stroke of a pen is anathema to majoritarian governance.

The “all or nothing” aspect of bill presentment is a GOOD THING. It forces the building of consensus. That positive aspect would be put in grave jeopardy by the line item veto.

Dewey , I understand what you are saying, but I respectfully disagree. I think that the ability to pass the buck on your pet projects has a great value. A senator can go home and tell his people, “We passed a bill to continue that critical and urgent study of the uses of over ripe elderberrys, but that darn president went against the will of the congress and of the people and struck it down.” As long as congressmen have done all they can, the people can expect no more and won’t punish them for acts of the president.

It would also get rid of a lot of the silly riders that get attached to bills in congress that have nothing to do with the legislation at hand. Also, and I realize this is a radical suggestion, but maybe if Congress did less, it would actually be a good thing. On the important matters, they would have to get a consensus, as they did in the post 9/11 days. For unimportant matters, I would argue they unimportant.

I’m with serenitynow – I hate pork. And corporate welfare.

And I think there ought to be a way to prevent tacking onto bills riders about completely different things. To me, it does not seem right to sneak legislation in like that.

serenitynow, you assume the line item veto would only be used against genuine pork. Consider the following scenario, which I suspect is not uncommon: Pubbies demand drastic rule changes in the way, say, Medicare eligibility is determined; the Dems oppose this and have the votes to block it, but some key Dems agree to switch sides if the bill includes spending to subsidize prescription drugs for the elderly – spending the Dems do not have the votes to approve on their own.

The line item veto would allow a Pubbie president to essentially render that compromise null and void at the stroke of a pen. Regardless of whether you agree with either, both, or none of the provisions of the proposal, I hope you would recognize the damage such a rule would do to notions of representative governance.

A lot of that kind of horse trading is done over pork, true, but a lot of it is over genuine differences in viewpoint as to what new legislation should include. The line item veto risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the fact that the line item veto would give the president a lot of power in helping his party to control Congress. A Pubbie president would just have to line-item veto those projects that benefit Dems in vulnerable seats, the implicit message being “if you people would vote in a Pubbie, you’d get all the pork you can handle.” And a Pubbie incumbent could similarly argue that if you replace him with a Dem, the gravy train would end because the President won’t line item veto pork from his own party, but will do so if a Dem unseats the incumbent.

Dewey, you raise some valid objections to the line item veto, although I think the political pressure that would come from its indiscriminate use would be greater than you credit it. During its short life, I don’t recall the line item veto being used in such a fashion, but of course that does not mean that it never would be used that way. I still think it is a good idea, because I think that partisanship in its employment would create a political backlash that no party would wish to undergo.

Another idea, and what I think is a better one, is to pass a law that each piece of legislation must deal solely with one issue. A funding bill cannot be tied to a spending bill. A spending bill cannot be tied to healthcare legislation, etc. Then the president could deal with each piece of legislation appropriately.

I would also posit to you that the horsetrading system you describe is simply a way to get legislation which does not have a true majority to pass. I think this is a greater threat to the representative system than the line item veto. If legislation does not have the support of the majority, it should not be passed. If that means less legislation, then all the better IMHO.

I think some states do this, and it is a really good idea, but in addition to this, I think we need to limit the Federal government to only spending on Federal issues (that is, issues which serve a clear national purpose as opposed to a state or local purpose).

All of these ideas, though, would require consitutional amendments. I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.


Those are all good arguments on paper but i do not think they stand-up to real world practice. Many (in fact most IIRC) state Governors have a line item veto and those states get along just fine.

Are their chances for this power to be abused? Certainly, any power has potential for abuse. However, if the US President had a line item veto then Congress would figure a new way to get done what needs doing. A President could use the line item veto to bludgeon the opposing party to get his way but what comes around goes around so it would behoove a given party to play fair most of the time.

Additionally, Congress still has the power to override a veto. If a given rider is legitimately good then it should pass. More than likely however it is a rider in the first pace because it doesn’t stand a chanc eon its own.

As to compromises I would rather Congress horse trade on the issues rather than buy votes with pork barrel projects.

Define “get along fine.” If you believe, as I do, that Congress should be “first among equals” in the tripartite scheme of government, then a rule that allows easy unraveling of legislative compromise is difficult to swallow.

All those “studies” don’t amount to anything significant in the overall budget. It is the equivilant of a retail merchant: when your purchase goes to 10.01, and you hand him a Twenty, him handing you back a Ten$, instead of $9.99. And you know- research is always worthwhile.

So “serenity now” it is certainly NOT “vast sums” of your money. And I doubt that 50% of your wages go to taxes. In fact, I’d bet it is closer to 25%. 26% of my paid is “withheld”, and I get a small refund, so then it’s about 25%. Of course, I also spend about 1% on sales taxes, and some lesser % on auto tags, utilities taxes, etc. These programs dudes are yelling about amount to less that 1% of the budget. So- as a WAG, I’d guess “pork” & “silly” studies cost me about $100 a year.

However, we could save a significant, although small %, by getting rid of Ag subsidies. It is something like 5%?

Then as to some “pork”. Let us say you have a new tank the Army wants. We will assume it is a legit need, and not too overinflated. But- where that tank is untlimately built is considered “pork”. However, dudes- it has to be built SOMEWHERE. Thus, the fact that the fight over WHERE it is built is considered “pork” doesn’t raise our tax bill any significant amount.

So- before we get all “het up” about “pork”- let us get some facts & figures- how much does it really cost us?

I also recommend PJ. First, although he is certainly a Republican, he gives hell to both parties when they deserve it. Sure, the Democrats get more abuse, but the GOP doesn’t get a free ride. Then also, instead of just bitching about stuff, he occ even gives a solution, something the “dittoheads” never get to hear. :smiley: