Pork vs. programmatic policy-making

One of the things that I tell my students ever year in the Policy-Making Processes course is that there are, very broadly speaking, two ways in which policy may be made: In a programmatic fashion, or in a particularistic fashion. The good old “pork barrel” is an example of particularism.

Given that we are just now entering the part of the course where this comes up, Chris Lawrence’s post from October 20 regarding the Porkbusters project could hardly have come at a better time.

As Chris notes, when politicians, commentators, or regular citizens label government spending programs, “one man’s pork is another man’s necessary infrastructure project.”

But then Chris adds the kicker, with respect to post-Katrina projects like rebuilding the Ponchartrain bridge as a 6-lane highway and other big “revitalization” spending (which Porkbusters are trying to have Congress appropriate money for instead of projects like the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere“):

a real “porkbuster” would favor letting the FHWA bureaucracy, not Congress, decide where the money would best be spent.

This is the crux of the matter. If policy specialists in the bureaucracy are given fairly wide leeway to apply their expertise and merit criteria in determining which projects should have priority, we are probably looking at programmatic policy-making. If, on the other hand, committees of politicians are establishing which projects will have priority, we are almost certainly looking at particularism/pork.

It is worth adding, however, that bureaucracies can also produce pork. It depends on the authority that has been delegated by their political principals—whether to implement the broad program of the governing majority or to reflect the preferences of politicians’ particular organized or localized constituencies. (This is “structural politics,” as Moe and Caldwell call it; that reference to a reading is for the benefit of my students).

Sometimes it is a fine line—and it clearly is a continuum—but the distinction between these two basic types of policy-making comes down to the extent of specific political criteria imposed on the bureaucracy. And that extent, of course, depends on how the politicians build their own election/reelection constituencies.

Follow-up post related to this theme:
Security funding: Pork vs. programmatic policy? (October 30, 2005)

0 thoughts on “Pork vs. programmatic policy-making

  1. Do you believe that if Congress used the power of the purse in a primarily oversight matter, by which I am even arguing for strict oversight, they could reduce “pork” in a bureaucracy prone to it.

    Take as a given the already large bureaucracy we have developed and funded, and not the need to create and fund a new one, with current staff etc.

    Does the current bureaucracy have sufficient expertise in actual programmatic planning, or are they so used to “particularist” planning that they would be unable to adapt?

    Parliamentary systems often have the permanent government make policy which must be voted on and approved by parliament. With list voting structures this can lead to a certain “rubber stamp” effect by those who favor large state control of programs, but can also lead to severe backlash during periods when other parties control. What about under our system? How do we channel the re-election incentive into one for effective national, rather than local pork, policy?

    I am fond of commenting that even the famous filibuster scene in Mr. Smith is a filibuster for pork. Smith needs funding for a local camp for boys.

  2. Great comments, Christian! You raise the right issues here, for sure.

    I’m going to let this percolate just a bit before responding substantively.

  3. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Security funding: Pork vs. programmatic policy?

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