A “slush fund” is an unregulated store of money which is often used for illicit or illegal purposes.
In the 19th century, “slush” meant the leftover fat from cooking bacon and other meats. This fat was valuable, since it could be sold to candle makers. At the end of a long voyage, ships’ crews would sell their accumulated slush to the highest bidder. They typically used the proceeds to buy luxuries, like books or musical instruments.
By the 19th century, the money earned by selling leftover grease was called a “slush fund.”
One early example comes from an 1825 edition of the Daily National Journal from Washington, DC:
On the first opportunity that occurred, other iron hoops, greater it is believed in number, were purchased from what is called the Slush Fund, and restored to the ship to replace those taken as aforesaid.
Today, slush fund has lost its old, innocent connotations with books and music, and has taken on a dark tone. Most of us associate slush funds with underhanded actions, bribes, and hush money.
A slush fund can come from political contributions, kickbacks, or just about any source. If the source of the money is shady and hard to trace, and if it’s difficult to track the way the funds are spent, then it may be a slush fund.
The phrase is both negative and difficult to prove, making it a useful insult for politicians to hurl at each other.
The Clinton Foundation, for example, is often accused by its critics of being a slush fund. The foundation has an annual budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and its critics question exactly what those funds are used for.
As the BBC put it, “the Clinton Foundation’s value is in the eye of the beholder. It has been lauded as force for good in the world. It has also been condemned as a “slush fund” for the Clinton family and a front for official corruption.”
The Clintons aren’t the only ones accused of maintaining a slush fund. In 2020, critics of President Trump charged that he had solicited contributions towards an election defense fund and then used that money to further his own interests. The election defense fund had, they charged, turned into a slush fund.
“This is a slush fund. That’s the bottom line,” said Paul S. Ryan, a spokesman for the pro-transparency group Common Cause. “Trump may just continue to string out this meritless litigation in order to fleece his own supporters of their money and use it in the coming years to pad his own lifestyle while teasing a 2024 candidacy.”
And, in April 2021, as Congress was debating President Biden’s infrastructure bill, Politico reported that “the Senate Republican Conference is sending around a memo to all GOP comms staff, jabbing at the White House for calling its infrastructure bill a “jobs plan.” What they’re calling it instead? “A partisan plan to kill jobs and create slush funds on the taxpayer dime.”