Does Pork Still Buy Protection?

One benefit of political incumbency has been the ability to dispense goodies to one's constituents. For years, members of Congress larded up appropriations bills with pork barrel projects to curry favor back home. This was the rule during decades of Democratic control of Congress, and when Republicans took over, they did the Dems one better. Republican appropriators piled the pork to new heights. Yet, as the New York Times reports, it is not clear pork barrel politics protected Republican incumbents at the polls.

A timeworn bit of political wisdom has been that larding one's district with pork projects can act as an incumbency protection program. And the Republican leaders in Congress ardently followed that principle.

"The leadership talked all the time about how we've got to use earmarks to help these vulnerable members," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who has become one of Washington's loudest opponents of earmarking. "But what this election showed was that earmarks just aren't that important to voters."

The powers of incumbency could not outweigh far more pressing issues, this year, like the war in Iraq — which became the central point of most of the Democratic campaigns — or the scandals that tarnished the Republican Party as a whole. The abuse of earmarks itself became an issue in several races with some of their biggest users, including two senators and four House members who served on the appropriations committees that oversee federal spending, losing their seats.

The story stresses that it is too early to put a fork in pork, but the tide may be changing. It is also possible that Republicans may be less potent protection for Republicans, particularly insofar as some Republican constituencies are offended by what they perceive as wasteful government spending.