Friday, September 27, 2013

The Uses of Procrastination: The Origins of Pork Barrel and Lobbying

As we stare into the darkness of the inevitable failure of our lives, what could be better than to waste a little time looking up things on the Internet? The Internet is a Bold New Paradigm (tm) and provides endless opportunity to learn a little about nearly everything, as long as what you want to learn is not complete, well-presented or, in many cases, accurate. These are details that have nothing whatsoever to do with its value as a time waster however.

Today I want to enlighten you with two important words in our uniquely American political language. The origins of one of them I have known for a long time, the other I just learned on the Internet recently. So as to give you fair warning, I am going to name those two words now and ask you to think about what they might have originally meant, or what their origin might have been.

The words are "pork barrel" and "lobbyist".

In modern parlance, the term pork barrel politics refers to a congressman arranging for his district to receive some federal project that pumps money into the local economy. This would usually take the form of construction projects, such as highways, bridges, etc. It might take the form of an Army or Navy base, or it might be in the form of a military procurement that spends some of its money in that district. By this definition, the building of the 1st six frigates for the US Navy during the Geo. Washington administration was a pork barrel project, because it began the navy tradition of spreading the work out across as many states as possible to increase congressional support for the project. In the case of the six frigates, each one was built in a different seaport, each in a different state. That is six states out of thirteen, not a bad spread. An informed discussion of this term would have the first use of the term in the congressional record, but I do not have that kind of information here. This is the Internet, after all.

The pork barrel harkens back to a time in history when salt was a major means of preservation of food. In agricultural America, various farms and homesteads would have a central place that might serve as the location of a church, a post office, and a general store. At the general store one might find a variety of goods, bulk foods, hardware, etc. One of features of your general country store would have been the "pork barrel", which was a barrel of salted pork. One would go to the county seat on the weekend, perhaps, and pick up the mail, see some friends, and pick up supplies at the store to bring home to the farm. One would select some salted pork from the barrel and pay by weight, presumably. Thus the analogy of bringing something home to one's constituents from the pork barrel that was Washington. Surely we are all allowed to bring something home from the pork barrel for our families ? That is only fair.

Apparently with the origin of the term "lobbyist" we have an example of a self-reinforcing Internet myth.  Fun but not true.   The lobby in question refers to a famous old hotel in DC which is two blocks away from the White House, the Willard Hotel. It was at one time the only hotel you could stay at in DC and still easily get to the major attractions or see all the possible people you needed to see to do business in Washington. When Grant was president, being one of our more social presidents, he liked to go out for a drink and a smoke, and he usually went to the lobby and bar of the Willard hotel.

The restored lobby of the Willard Hotel presumably without the spitoons that would have been there in Grant's day

This meant that you could hang out in the lobby of the hotel and have a good chance of just running into the president many evenings of the week, and have a few informal words with him on some topic. This became known in town as "lobbying", the people who did it were called "lobbyists", the verb was "to lobby".

Its a fun story, but I am told, just not true.  The origin of the term "to lobby" comes from England and parliament and refers to the lobbies where the members of parliament would assemble before going into the chambers to debate and vote.    The process of researching this word reminds me that the Internet is NOT a substitute for solid reference material, probably in print, next to your computer terminal.

The implication is that the term "lobbyist" is not uniquely American in the least, it is a shared term of art with our brothers in crime, Great Britain.

We hope you have been enlightened and entertained by this vital information and that we have contributed to the wastage of what little time you have left in a suitably amusing manner.

The Willard Intercontinental Washington

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