Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

'Pork' Spending, Place Names, and Political Stature in West Virginia

Academic journal article Southeastern Geographer

'Pork' Spending, Place Names, and Political Stature in West Virginia

Article excerpt

As a longtime member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Robert C. Byrd has earned a reputation for successfully procuring supplemental federal spending for West Virginia. Indeed, Byrd has become nearly synonymous with 'pork barrel' spending in both the national and West Virginia press. This article attempts to elucidate the connections between pork spending, honorary place names, and political stature by focusing on Senator Byrd's efforts since 1989. After describing illustrative spending projects related to transportation and higher education, this article suggests how these expenditures may affect economic growth, electoral results, and political stature. While the economic impact of pork in this case is debatable, it is likely that its political significance, especially the practice of naming projects after Senator Byrd, plays a more substantive role.

KEY WORDS: place names, political geography, pork barrel spending, West Virginia


"I come to warn the Senate, if you want a wounded bull on the floor of the Senate, pass this amendment.... This amendment is an offense to me. It is not only an offense to me, it is a threat to every person in my State.... The amendment may pass, but if it does the bill will never be passed. If it does, I will be taken out of here on a stretcher" (Congressional Record 2005,Sl1629-Sl1630).

These strong words from Alaska Senator and longtime member of the Appropriations Committee Ted Stevens, who later threatened to resign, reflected some of the acrimony surrounding the transportation bill approved by Congress in 2005. Stevens was reacting to an amendment offered by Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn that would divert millions of dollars earmarked for two bridges in Alaska to rebuild interstate bridges near New Orleans. The Alaska bridges had about $453 million in approved allocations but final costs would likely surpass $2 billion. One of the bridges, derisively nicknamed the 'Bridge to Nowhere,' became the subject of national media attention. The bridge would link the approximately fifty residents of Gravina Island with the mainland town Ketchikan, replacing a five minute ferry ride. At an initial cost of $223 million, the 'Bridge to Nowhere' would be nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge. Although opposed by a variety of groups, such the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Sierra Club, and derided in prominent newspapers as 'pork barrel' politics, the Alaskan transportation funding appears secure, while the Coburn amendment failed 82-15 (Egan 2004; Hulse 2005; Murray 2005; Schulte 2005; Grunwald 2006).

While the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and Senator Stevens' tirade provided fodder for political satirists, they also raised serious issues involving the influence of 'pork barrel' projects on the geography of federal spending. This article aims to reinvigorate interest in this topic among professional geographers by focusing on perhaps the individual most identified with pork spending: West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd. By the time his current term ends in 2013, Byrd will have served in the Senate for 54 yr. Friends and foes characterize Byrd as an extremely capable legislator with unsurpassed knowledge of the Senate's somewhat arcane procedures. Despite his other political accomplishments, Byrd's reputation, at least since 1989, is increasingly identified with one achievement: his success at directing federal spending to West Virginia resulting in the proliferation of 'Robert C. Byrd' place names across the state.

Indeed, Byrd has become nearly synonymous with pork barrel spending in both the national and state press. While West Virginia officials and media generally laud Byrd's accomplishments, press coverage from outside the state slants in the opposite direction by crowning Byrd as the 'King of Pork.' Byrd's efforts to funnel federal dollars to West Virginia have been the focus of negative stories in various national newspapers like The Washington Post (1994a; 1994b) or The New York Times (Clines 2002). …

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