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President’s cabinet secretaries control the pork, Vanderbilt research finds

While many people associate the word “pork” with lawmakers’ wasteful spending for pet projects, new Vanderbilt research demonstrates the importance of cabinet secretaries and their political ideology in the distribution of lucrative federal grants.

“Many voters assume that the president has extensive control over the decisions made by the people he appoints to cabinet posts,” said Christian Grose, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “Executive agencies and the people who lead them have tremendous influence over which states receive billions of dollars from discretionary grants and contracts. The president himself has less influence over where money from federal agencies is spent, in part because he has bigger fish to fry.”

Grose and colleague Anthony Bertelli of the University of Georgia studied the allocation of contracts from the U.S. Departments of Labor and Defense from 1991 to 2002. They also examined the political leanings – conservative or liberal – of the heads of these departments throughout the same time period.

“What happens is Congress passes laws giving various agencies responsibility to allocate specific grants and projects,” Grose said. “Our research found that a more conservative cabinet secretary will choose to allocate more money to states represented by conservative senators and the opposite happens when a more liberal secretary takes office.”

Grose cited the example of President Clinton’s two labor secretaries, Robert Reich and Alexis Herman. “Reich was relatively liberal, and states with liberal senators, such as California, were awarded many labor contracts,” Grose said.

Grose pointed out that Herman had worked for the Democratic National Committee and was more moderate in her political views. California and other states with liberal senators did not receive as many federal grants when Herman succeeded Reich.

Meanwhile, under Bush 43, the Labor Department designated a group of North Carolina textile workers under a specific classification that enabled North Carolina to receive millions of federal dollars, Grose said. The state was represented by conservative senators at that time.

Hilda Solis, President Obama’s pick for labor secretary, is more liberal in her ideology than Chao. “If our model holds, the likelihood is that very liberal senators’ states will receive more grants from the Labor Department than they have during the past administration.” On the other hand, Obama is retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under George W. Bush. Grose anticipates that states with generally moderate or conservative senators will continue to receive more federal contracts than those with more liberal representation.

“North Carolina was awarded very large defense contracts under Clinton’s second defense secretary, William Cohen, who was a somewhat conservative Republican,” Grose said. “For instance, when William Cohen replaced William Perry as defense secretary, Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina gained more than $1.05 billion dollars in defense contracts for his state during the transition. That trend continued under Bush 43. Given the choice, those in the Defense Department would prefer to reward states whose senators are more likely to vote favorably on legislative issues concerning their area.”

Grose and Bertelli will conduct additional research by examining the ideological position of every major cabinet appointee from the administration of Bush 41 through Obama to test their theory on the powerful influence of cabinet secretaries and agencies’ senior management. “Secretaries of Pork? A New Theory of Distributive Public Policy” is scheduled to be published in the July issue of Journal of Politics.

Media Contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS