Billion-dollar bill for secret bounty

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The Independent Online
It is as old as time, and as ineradicable as sin. It costs United States taxpayers anything from $10bn (pounds 6.5bn) to $100bn (pounds 65bn) a year, depending on how it is defined. It is "pork", unnecessary spending to humour a Congressman or Senator, paid from the central federal budget.

Pork is the business of the other, secret Congress: not the place of the wordy, self-promoting politicians whose favourite prop is a television camera, but of arcane backroom committee rooms, where special interests are accommodated, votes bought and deals struck.

The term has been part of the US's political vocabulary at least since 1870. It embraces items in appropriations bills - in state, city as well as federal budgets - which are targeted to local ends. The pork-barrel's bounty ranges from the absurd ($5m for research into Belgian endives, or $65m for a museum of old trains in Scranton, Pennsylvania) to the colossal (B-2 bombers and Seawolf nuclear submarines at $2bn apiece).

Now this should be a bad time for pork; scarcely a week passes without the White House or Congress issuing a plan to balance the federal budget, while so outraged are Republican deficit hawks by Washington's feckless ways that they want to eliminate entire departments of government.

Behind the noble words, everyone is an accomplice. For members of Congress, securing pork is the best way of showing voters back home they are delivering the goods. Both Republicans and Democrats go along. The White House, too, plays the game, promising favours to powerful interest groups, or key states in the electoral college.

Pork indeed has its defenders. Without it, this camp insists, compromise could never be reached in a Congress where party discipline is minimal compared with Britain.

But as George Bernard Shaw noted: "A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the vote of Paul."

Simple beginnings

The term pork-barrel politics derives from the pre-civil war custom of periodically distributing barrels of salt pork to slaves, who would each rush to grab the largest possible amount.