Pork and Elections

Representative Henry Bonilla (R-TX) lost his seat in Congress in a runoff election yesterday, thus increasing the number of defeated House GOP incumbents to 22 (Republicans lost a total of 30 House seats, but 8 Democratic pickups were in open seats without an incumbent seeking reelection).

Interestingly, 5 of the 22 defeated Republican incumbents, including Bonilla, were members of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which controls the federal government’s purse strings and is responsible for doling out pork.

The relatively large number of defeated appropriators might be surprising for some inside-the-beltway analysts because the committee is notorious for sending boatloads of pork to the districts of congressmen who serve on the committee or face tough reelection races. 

As The Hill notes:

In the Labor-HHS-Education bill for fiscal year 2007, more than $146 million in hometown projects is reserved for appropriators’ districts, placing roughly 30 percent of the earmarked money in the hands of 15 percent of the House members. If passed as written, the average appropriator’s district would get $2.25 million compared with averages of $1.35 million for the districts of 43 politically vulnerable lawmakers who are not appropriators and $663,000 for districts that are neither competitive nor represented by an appropriator.

It has long been conventional wisdom that these pork projects help to guarantee reelection. But is it possible that the public has soured on the appropriations process?

After all, former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) is now in jail because of his illegal activities on the Appropriations Committee.  And appropriations-related ethical issues factored heavily into last month’s defeat of Representative Charles Taylor (R-NC), who chaired the Interior Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. 

It’s probably too early to declare that pork projects have changed from a political asset to a liability, but the appropriations process has certainly drawn much more public scrutiny recently.  As a result, the Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress without finishing all of the fiscal 2007 appropriations bills, preferring to instead push the issue off onto the incoming Democratic majority.  And the Democrats have already announced their plans to kick the can further down the road and avoid the fiscal 2007 appropriations process.

For the time being at least, it seems congressmen have lost their taste for pork, but don’t expect this phenomenon to last long.