A boondoggle is a wasteful or extravagant project with no practical value. Usually, a boondoggle makes use of public funds and carries at least a whiff of corruption.

The word boondoggle dates back at least to the 1920s, when it was the name for a harmless boy scout craft. Scouts used their downtime to make lanyards and bracelets, and the craft was known as boondoggling.

Then, in 1935, the New York Times reported that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had funded a 3-million-dollar program to teach white collar workers shadow puppetry and boondoggling. In theory, the program was training people to teach underprivileged kids how to make arts and crafts out of reusable materials. However, readers were horrified at the sum being spent on lanyards. From that day on, boondoggling has been synonymous with wasteful government spending.

In 2012, The Atlantic wrote about what it called “the Federal government’s $10 billion plutonium  boondoggle.” The magazine warned that, even as they wrangled over the details of a new student loan plan, both Democrats and Republicans were throwing away money in a “plutonium pit.”

From The Atlantic:

Some members of Congress are trying to restore billions in funding for a new factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to make plutonium cores for nuclear bombs that the military doesn’t need. Meanwhile, President Obama is plowing ahead with plans to make plutonium fuel rods for power reactors that no power company wants to buy. Together, construction costs for these two radioactive white elephants add up to over $10 billion, and rising.

In 2015, CNBC had a piece titled “The $20 Million Political Boondoggle That Just Won’t Die” about an elaborate project which involved shipping coal from the hills of eastern Pennsylvania all the way to the town of Kaiserslauntern in Germany. The coal in question was used by a large US military installation, where people were under strict orders to burn only the anthracite coal shipped from the US. CNBC reported that the cost to taxpayers was $20 million per year – not even accounting for the cost of transport.

Boondoggle is often used in ways that are roughly synonymous with “slush funds” and “grifting.” In 2020, amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, politicians started throwing around accusations about boondoggles. Lisa McCormick, a candidate for US Congress from New Jersey, has been critiquing the “COVID boondoggle.” McCormick said that relief funds appropriated by Congress to ease the economic pain of the global pandemic had been misapplied and has implied that it’s disproportionally benefiting Trump donors.

Said McCormick: “The Congress enacted this massive appropriation without safeguards or oversight to ensure that taxpayers would be protected, and now the money is gone and only predators seem satisfied while 22 million Americans are filing for unemployment. In addition to the .2 trillion included in the bill is another trillion that the Federal Reserve will distribute as part of Trump’s slush fund.””



A “boodle” refers to a large sum of bribe money or graft money.

Boodle can also be used to mean a large collection of something. In fact, some linguists believe that the phrase “the whole kit and kaboodle” is a corruption of the phrase “the whole kit and boodle.” However, “boodle” rarely used in this sense today.

The word “boodle” originally comes from the Dutch “boedel,” meaning wealth and riches. Boodle was first used in its modern sense of dirty money in 1858.

Today, boodle is often used to refer to ill-gotten gains by grifters. In 2019, the New Republic wrote about the Ukrainian oligarch Kolomoisky, who has been accused of laundering millions of dollars through US real estate purchases and shell companies. The New Republic wrote that:

Instead of plopping his funds in Manhattan high-rises or Miami beachfronts, Kolomoisky’s network tried a different tack, opting to stuff his boodle in metallurgy plants across the Rust Belt and buildings in downtown Cleveland.

Boodle can also mean political spoils, or an undeserved windfall. In this sense, the boodle might not be illegally come by. This is sometimes called “honest graft.” But using the term “boodle” suggests that the recipient doesn’t truly deserve the money.

In 2019, for example, the Boston Globe wrote about what it dubbed the “tale of two welfare programs.” The newspaper criticized the bailouts that the Trump administration was handing to American farmers in the midst of cuts to the SNAP food stamp program. The Globe called the payouts to farmers inefficient and wasteful, writing,

“Some of the boodle is going to people who are barely farmers at all. (Hey, Senator Grassley!) Most of it is buoying not mom and pop farms, but the giant operations that gobble them up.”

The term boodle is often associated with the kind of corruption found in machine politics. In Chicago, during the gilded age, the city’s government was rife with low-level graft. Many of the city’s politicians were Irish American and were referred to “Irish boodle politicians.” During this time, boodling also referred to the practice of selling city franchises to private businessmen.

In 19th century America, sheriffs had their own kind of specialized boodle. According to most state and local laws, authorities were allowed to arrest vagrants and lock them up in jail. They were assigned funds to feed the prisoners and run the jails, but often pocketed most of that money. The jails which housed vagrants came to be known as “boodle jails.”

The word boodle is used in a few different countries, generally with a different meaning than in the United States. In South Africa, boodle means a money but does not have the negative connotation that it does in the US; the meaning seems to be closer to what Americans would call a “bundle.” Boodle Loans is one of the leading payday lenders in South Africa.

In the Philippines, a “boodle fight” is a meal that’s spread out on a table and eaten without utensils. “Boodle” refers to the plentiful food, and “fight” refers to the fact that, since everyone is sharing, they end up fighting to get the most food. The tradition started in the Filipino military, where it was supposed to instill a sense of brotherhood among soldiers.


A grifter is a con artist, someone who obtains money by swindling or tricking others. In politics, the word refers to people who use the political process as a way to enrich themselves.

Merriam Webster notes that the word first appeared in print in 1915, in George Bronson-Howard’s novel, God’s Man. At that time, a grifter referred to any kind of criminal who used his wits, rather than brute force, to carry out crimes. Pickpockets, con artists, and card-sharps could all be classed as grifters.

In recent years, pundits have begun talking about “political grifters,” which is quite similar to what was once called “honest graft” in the Tammany Hall era.

In 2014 former Rep. Steve LaTourette, of Ohio, wrote a piece in Politico describing what he called the rise of the political grifter. LaTourette was describing people who get into politics, and stay in politics, because they want to line their own pockets. He singled out the Republican party for censure, warning that the party was being divided into two wings – the governing wing, and the grifting ring.

LaTourette claimed that right-wing groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots were “run by men and women who have made millions by playing on the fears and anger about the dysfunction in Washington.” In LaTourette’s view, modern-day grifters don’t care about ideals, or even about political power. They have no interest in governing or passing laws. They’re only in it for the money that they can collect in the form of political donations.

A 2014 investigation by Politico looked at 33 political action committees, or PACs, that courted donations from Tea Party voters. Politico discovered that the groups “raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors.” But almost none of the money raised can be accounted for, Politico found: “The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.”

In late 2018, the New York Times noted that both President Trump and his administration were “constantly” being accused of grifting. Earlier that year, Forbes said that Wilbur Ross, the US secretary of commerce, “could rank among the biggest grifters in American history.” One-time EPA head Scott Pruitt was repeatedly accused of being a grifter because of his close ties to the oil and gas industries. Michael Cohen, the president’s one-time personal lawyer, was widely seen as a grifter himself; later, Cohen testified against Trump and described his former boss as a “conman” and a “cheat.”

Of course, Democrats have also been accused of grifting. Bill and Hillary Clinton have both been accused of grifting, in part because of allegations that they did favors for wealthy donors to the Clinton Foundation. The New York Post ran an op-ed calling Hillary Clinton a “world class grifter who sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom and to her State Department office. The Wall Street Journal has also repeatedly accused both Bill and Hillary Clinton of “grifting.”

deduct box

deduct box

The “deduct box” was the locked box where legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long kept “deducts” from state employee salaries to fund his political operation.

Estimates suggest Long collected between $50,000 to $75,000 each election cycle from government workers. The deduct box was kept at his Roosevelt Hotel headquarters in New Orleans.

After being shot in 1935, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Long was asked on his deathbed by Roosevelt Hotel owner Seymour Weiss, “Huey, where is the deduct box?” Before falling into a coma, Long responded, “I’ll tell you later, Seymour.”

The deduct box was never found.

honest graft

Honest graft refers to the money-making opportunities that might arise while holding public office. The activities are, strictly speaking, legal, although they might raise eyebrows or provoke criticism.

The term “honest graft” was coined by George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss and political operative. Plunkitt served in both houses of the New York State legislature during the late 19th century, but he also operated informally out of the New York City courthouse. Today, he is best known for his book on “practical politics,” which includes his definition of honest graft.

Plunkitt argued that it is absolutely legitimate for politicians to take advantage of any opportunities that they come across. Plunkitt looked down on “dishonest graft,” which included corruption and blackmail. But he upheld the right of politicians to line their pockets, as long as they did so legally. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” he famously said.

Plunkitt did things like buy up public land after he got a tip that his political party was about to build a park in the area. When it came time to construct the park, he sold his land back, holding out for the highest possible price. Plunkitt didn’t see this as a waste of public funds; instead, he compared himself to a stock trader who studies futures. “It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year,” he wrote.

In modern times, few politicians brag about looking for honest graft in the way that Plunkitt did. But journalists and advocacy groups often point out examples of what they see as barely-legal profiteering by politicians. In 2012, CBS News published a detailed look at how members of Congress use their inside knowledge to win big in the stock market. CBS pointed out that Members of Congress are free to use their knowledge about government contracts and upcoming legislation when they trade in the stock market, for example. Many compare this behavior to insider trading, but there is no law to prevent it.

Members of Congress also reportedly made a fortune by betting against the stock market just before the 2008 financial crisis hit. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had, of course, tipped them off about the coming crash. And, like George Plunkitt, members of Congress also use their inside knowledge and power to make profitable real estate deals. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, once used her influence to push through a 20 million dollar waterfront improvement project that drastically increased the value of property which she owned.

Over the years, Bill Clinton has faced questions about the big speaking fees he collects, and about the donations given to the Clinton Foundation. President Trump has also been accused of lining his pockets during his presidency. He has been questioned about his hotels and his golf courses, as well as his business connections to world leaders. Unlike George Plunkitt, none of today’s politicians wants to talk about honest graft, but the allegations persist.