Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Political Economy: Logrolling and Pork Barrel Defined

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As a part of my preparation for the coming semester, I spent some time today reviewing public choice theory.* Logrolling and Pork Barrel were two of the terms that came up. These are colorful terms from the realm of every day politics that have long been used to describe the activities of our elected representatives.

The term logrolling is used to describe the practice of one member of Congress or a legislature making a deal with another member of the same legislative body to vote for each other's pet bills. In other words, Congressman Jones from Smallsville, Maine agrees to vote for Congresswoman Smith's bill to appropriate a few million dollars to underwrite an experimental project to raise catfish in the Nevada desert in exchange for Congresswoman Smith agreeing to vote for his bill to spend a few million dollars on a project to test the feasibility of growing oranges in Maine. Both of these will be paid for by the taxpayers of the entire nation but only a few citizens of Jones' and Smith's districts will benefit. Opponents of Jones will criticize him for wasting taxpayer dollars on a project to raise fish in the desert but those residents of Smallsville who benefit from the new jobs and business associated with the experiment to grow oranges in frigid Maine will praise him for the economic benefit he has brought to the district. After all, a few million poured into his district is serious money to the residents compared to the cost of the catfish farm in Nevada which, when divided among the millions of taxpayers in the entire United States, works out to a few cents or less each in taxes.

The term logrolling refers to the old American frontier custom of neighbors getting together to help each other clear their land by cutting down the trees and rolling the logs out of the way. Each family could clear their land faster if all the neighbors pitched in and helped one another. Early in our history members of Congress realized that if they helped each other by voting for each other's special projects they could individually bring more projects home for their constituents and increase their individual chances of re-election. Critics saw through this scheme and named it logrolling, a term understood by everyone.

A second and related term is pork barrel which refers to giving voters in one's district projects that benefit them at the expense of the rest of the nation (or state). This is also a term from our early history and, like logrolling, the term pork barrel shows that the citizens were wise to this type of scheme from the start. The term pork barrel refers to the barrels in which smoked pork, a major food staple, were shipped. By referring to projects as pork barrel projects critics were associating the practice of taxpayer funded projects that benefited small constituencies as a group in exchange for their votes with the earlier practice in colonial times and early days of the Republic of buying votes by providing free drinks, at the candidate's expense, to the voters.

Both logrolling and pork barrel are pejorative terms describing practices that are condemned by most citizens. But they persist because they work. First of all, politicians want to keep their jobs and the only way to do that is to keep getting re-elected. Second, while people don't like to pay taxes, they do like things that benefit them so the efforts of a Congressman in getting a new road built in the district will be appreciated by drivers whose commute is made easier, construction workers who are employed to build it and construction companies who are paid to build it. These people will look favorably on the Congressman at election time. Finally, the cost of the new road to the residents of the district will be a tiny fraction of the benefits they receive from it. What is expensive and what gets voters mad is the wasteful pork barrel projects sponsored by the 434 Representatives and 98 Senators from other districts and states. A few million spent in our district is nothing compared to the billions of dollars that are the cumulative cost of all the other pork barrel projects outside our district. Unfortunately, we can only vote for our own Congressman and Senators, who bring good projects home for us, and have no way of voting against the scoundrels in other districts whose cumulative spending adds up to a hefty tax bite from us every April 15th. "All politics is local" said former House Speaker Sam Rayburn and so long as we can only vote for those who bring home projects whose benefits to us greatly exceed the cost to us while being unable to vote against those who sponsor projects that cost us money but yield no financial benefit to us, logrolling and pork barrel legislation will live on.

* I found a brief and very readable article about Public Choice theory by B. Venkatesh at a site called the Hindu Business Line

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