The bottom of the barrel
In the 2008 United States presidential election campaign, and in the aftermath of the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as Republican candidate John McCain’s running mate, one issue that came up repeatedly in relation to Ms Palin’s home state opf Alaska was the so-called ‘Bridge to Nowhere’: a plan to spend $398 million in order to build a bridge linking Gravina Island (with its 50 inhabitants) to the local airport and another island. The project was the pet project of a local Republican Senator, and Governor Palin’s views on it became an election issue.
But in truth this project was nothing much out of the ordinary in the United States; indeed the allocation of funds to support local capital or other projects at the instigation of constituency politicians is bread and butter in US politics, and every Congress decision on the annual budget habitually has lots of what are called ‘earmarks’ attached to it, which are local projects inserted at the insistence of politicians in return for their support for the overall budget. It is a form of blackmail, or bribery, or the purchase of votes – whichever way you want to look at it. It is a venerable tradition in the US, and since the mid-19th century has been called ‘pork barrel politics’. While it is widely found in the US, to nobody’s great credit, there are at least also determined efforts being made to control the practice or bring it to an end. The bipartisan organisation Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) publishes an annual report (known as the Pig Book Summary) listing pork barrel expenditure for the year. This year has been a good year for ‘research’ projects in earmarks: such as nearly $3 million for ‘shrimp aquaculture research’, with the money to be spent in specific states, or nearly $5 million for ‘wood ultilization research’, $2.5 million for ‘potato research’, and so on. In the past, some of the more exotic examples of earmarks have included a large sum to fund research into ‘how students watch television’, and $2 million to construct an ‘ancient Hawaiian canoe’.
However, before we get into a finger-wagging mood on this one, it needs to be said that pork barrel politics is not exactly an unknown phenomenon in Ireland. Indeed it can be argued that, for all its other merits, an electoral system with constituency-based members of parliament often encourages such conduct, as the politicians scramble around to find ways of impressing their voters. And so we get local members of parliament who campaign largely on the basis of local investment issues, and independent candidates who stand as representatives of single capital projects. Or we get people like Jackie Healy-Rae, on whom the government now depends to an extent, and who tends to produce local shopping lists so that his support may be secured. This, it has to be said, is wholly disreputable, and the only responsible answer by the government to Mr Healy-Rae would be to tell him to get lost. I hope, but probably in vain, that this is what will happen.