Where's The Pork?


The pork in Congressional spending is no more. Or at least it is not recognizable as the earmarking of the past, according to political science faculty Drs. Russell Mills and Nicole Kalaf-Hughes.

In articles recently published in The Journal of Public Policy and The Washington Post, Mills and Kalaf-Hughes, together with Dr. Jason MacDonald of West Virginia University, reported U.S. legislators lost some of their influence after Congress agreed upon a moratorium on earmarking of funds for projects in members’ districts.

Gone are the days of funding for a dam project or potato research tucked into legislation, allowing the lawmakers “to claim credit and garner publicity” for securing projects in their home districts, said Mills. The new reality of pork barrel spending is a “lighter version, referred to as a ‘vegan substitute’ or letter-marking,” he said.

“In letter-marking, members of Congress write to the head of a federal agency asking (or demanding) the agency retain or allocate specific projects in their districts. And it’s actually less transparent than earmarking,” Mills and Kalaf-Hughs explained in the Washington Post article.

The change in process allows members of Congress to call for government spending cuts publicly, yet privately send letters telling agencies how and where to use their budgets.

To look into the situation, Mills and Kalaf-Hughes used the Freedom of Information Act to request a series of 101 letters that had been sent to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 73 Congressional representatives. At issue was the advisability of shutting down airport towers across the nation that were not cost efficient.

Mills knew about the letters from his time working as an FAA policy analyst. After he joined the faculty at BGSU, he and Kalaf-Hughes talked about the letters and their implications, and decided to further research the change in Congressional influence.

They coded the content of those early letters, Kalaf-Hughes explained, and then looked at what factors led the FAA to keep certain towers open while closing others.

Members of Congress had written letters suggesting national security would be at risk or there would be economic duress if the towers in their districts were shut down.

“When we looked at the factors that led to tower approvals, we wondered if the letters made a difference,” Mills said. They studied such factors as Congressional seniority, whether a member was on a funding committee and the number of letters submitted.

“We found the agency’s cost-benefit analysis really matters,” Kalaf-Hughes said. “The letters made a difference when the decision was on the margins.”

Mills and Kalaf-Hughes won a Dirksen Congressional Research Center Grant that allowed them to visit and interview Congressional appropriations and federal agency staffers. In their research they found that the change from earmarking to letter-marking has left many members of Congress unable to adapt to the new process.

They are currently in the process of expanding their research for a book manuscript that will examine the effect of letter-marking in other policy areas, including Army Corps of Engineers dam projects and Department of Transportation grants. Through additional research, they will continue to look at defining the practice. Mills said, “The bigger point is that this needs to be transparent.”

Read the complete Washington Post article and the Journal of Public Policy article.

Updated: 07/10/2020 03:12PM