GUEST POST: Putting Oberstar’s Pork in Context

This is the latest in a semi-regular series of Iron Range posts from historian Jeff Manuel.

News coverage of Representative Jim Oberstar’s loss to Chip Cravaack on Tuesday has emphasized Oberstar’s long record of using earmarks to fund projects in Minnesota’s Eighth District. The Star Tribune called Oberstar “a powerful transportation committee chairman who has delivered millions of dollars in pork-barrel projects to his northern Minnesota district.” For his part, Oberstar emphasized that these projects will long outlast today’s politicians. Anyone driving over the Duluth-Superior bridge named after Oberstar’s mentor, John Blatnik, will appreciate the truth of ths statement.

Pork-barrel politics have been controversial for decades, but it’s important to understand Oberstar’s earmarks in a broader context of how America’s mining regions dealt with industrial decline in the second half of the twentieth century and their relationship to the federal government.

On a national level, earmarks have been the most significant vehicle for the federal government to put money into mining regions like the Iron Range that are challenged by globalization and deindustrialization. This isn’t just an Iron Range story. In Pennsylvania’s declining anthracite coal mining region, historians Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht note that federal earmarks were the most important source of federal money for economic development. Democratic and Republican congressmen from the anthracite region “were masters at channeling federal dollars–for whatever purposes–into their districts.”

In short, earmarks were an imperfect and ad hoc form of industrial policy. Unlike many other nations, the U.S. federal government never pursued a coordinated industrial policy in the decades after World War II. Opponents of industrial policy ultimately won the argument, but important voices on the Iron Range argued in support of just such a coordinated federal plan to support the vital steel industry and the iron mines. Here’s a 1941 letter from Fred Cina urging the federal government to support the mining region and assist with unemployment. In the absence of a coordinated industrial policy, the federal government channeled development money through ad hoc programs like mineral stockpiles and the 1960s-era Area Redevelopment Administration (the Iron Range was a test case for ARA programs in the 1960s). And, most significantly, federal money flowed to mining regions through earmarks.

So let’s remember that all that pork—love it or hate it—was America’s version of an industrial policy.

Jeff Manuel, a history professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, lives in St. Louis. He is working on a book based on his dissertation about the Iron Range’s recent history.

Comments

  1. Very helpful explanation of the Cina, Blatnik, and Oberstar contributions to our Iron Range district. Without a national policy for industrial or community development, earmarks have done the job.

  2. Brian Goodspeed says:

    Thank you for this excellent analysis. Jim Oberstar’s loss feels like a scene from a Coen Brother’s movie (pointless). Will the 8th district really eschew federal funds from this day forward? Is the 8th district really demanding a return to laissez faire economics? Good luck, I guess.

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