Anybody who has dealt with livestock – something I didn’t do until my 30’s – knows that one way of identifying cows or sheep or pigs is by ear tags, inserted through their floppy ears. Before that technology (borrowed by women and men who pierce their own ears) it was common to notch the edges of animals’ ears, using a code, of sorts, to determine who was who among the flocks.
We read and hear a lot about earmarks these days. Dictionary.com has two definitions in particular that are interesting. First, the noun: “a mark of identification made on the ear of an animal to show ownership.” The second is a verb: “to set aside for a specific purpose, use, recipient, etc.: to earmark goods for export.”
What makes these definitions interesting to me is that they are really at the heart of what people should be unhappy about in the world of congressional earmarks.
Earmarks are actually not intrinsically bad. Let’s say our congressperson thought it was very important for Lake Ripley to be drained and refilled with Evian bottled water. After all, Evian is Naïve spelled backwards.
But, I digress. The point is, let’s assume that was a good idea, and our congressperson made the case before her colleagues, who debated the issue, and then decided that it was a worthwhile project. That earmark… with our congressperson showing ownership, along with the majority who would vote for it… would be just fine. Democracy in action. Suggested, debated in public, and voted for.
That example uses both the verb and noun parts of speech for the word earmark. Sadly, the kinds of earmarks that have proliferated in recent years – under both Republican and Democratic leadership — don’t meet that standard. They are often placed into omnibus spending bills, or most recently into the “stimulus” bill, without any debate, or responsibility being taken. They do the verb part of earmark – setting aside for a specific purpose — without the noun part, which is taking ownership.
Whether it is a bridge to nowhere or a train to Las Vegas, it seems to me that expenditures of taxpayer money that are never debated publicly are suspect, at best, and massive pandering to special interests at worst. If every expenditure were debated, maybe there wouldn’t be so many of them.
It’s funny, in a way, that you can earmark a pig, and that earmarks are referred to as being pork. It’s really funny, actually. But, it is kind of insulting to pigs.