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The Birth of Pork: Local Appropriations in America’s First Century


After describing a newly assembled dataset consisting of almost 9,000 local appropriations made by the U.S. Congress between 1789 and 1882, we test competing accounts of the politics surrounding them before offering a more nuanced, historically contingent view of the emergence of the pork barrel. We demonstrate that for most of this historical period—despite contemporary accusations of crass electoral motives—the pattern of appropriations is largely inconsistent with accounts of distributive politics grounded in a logic of legislative credit-claiming. Instead, support for appropriations in the House mapped cleanly onto the partisan/ideological structure of Congress for most of this period, and only in the 1870s produced the universalistic coalitions commonly associated with pork-barrel spending. We trace this shift to two historical factors: the emergence of a solid Democratic South, and growth in the fraction of appropriations funding recurrent expenditures on extant projects rather than new starts.

Corresponding author
Sanford C. Gordon is Professor of Politics, New York University, 19 West 4th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10011 (
Hannah K. Simpson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, 21 Allé de Brienne, 31015 Toulouse Cedex 6, France (
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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Princeton University, MIT, Emory University, the University of Mississippi, the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, and the annual meetings of the Midwest and Southern Political Science Associations, where the authors received valuable feedback. We also gratefully acknowledge Scott James, Dimitri Landa, Jon Rogowski, Howard Rosenthal, Charles Stewart, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and assistance. Gordon also thanks the NYU School of Law, where he is a scholar in residence for 2017–18. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

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