My turn: When is an earmark not really an earmark?

Posted: Sunday, February 08, 2009

From time to time a word gets overused and loses its real meaning. Some words even become meaningless because they have so many meanings. I'm afraid that "earmark" has become one such word.

In its purest, non-agricultural sense, an earmark is something set aside for a special purpose. It is logical then that in the political context "earmark" came to describe a special appropriation or other designation in legislation. So far so good. Earmarks were generated in many ways: Constituents asked their representatives for something, local governments asked for something, businesses asked for something and representatives themselves dreamed up some things. And that is probably a short list of possibilities.

There is nothing inherently bad in the process so far. But we all know, or at least have heard, that some bad things crept into it. Money was earmarked to a project or other beneficiary to repay campaign contributions, to curry favor from a potential employer and so on. And the affected legislation was frequently excessively long and arrived for a vote with little time for review. Eventually, politicians, some of whom had participated happily in the process, began to speak out against all the bad. Again, so far so good (except for the bad).

The problem comes when you start to burn down the house to put out a fire on the kitchen counter. During last year's election campaign, we heard "no more earmarks" time and again from candidates. An item in the Empire recently drew my attention to the breadth of the problem. A Washington watchdog group, ever vigilant for potential corruption, railed against "earmarks" in the draft economic rescue bill.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of that legislation is that it includes a lot of money that will eventually go to state and local governments to jump-start a number of projects that are planned and ready to go. I assume that the managers of those projects will let the government know they should be considered and some agency will say yes or no. Perhaps a congressman or senator will enter the picture as an advocate. Perish the thought, but even a local government's lobbyist might provide information that would help the decision along.

To my way of thinking, that form of "earmark" is simply government at work, looking for worthy and in-need projects or programs that should be funded. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Bad people can make bad decisions in any activity, and corrupt people will always look for ways to benefit from their decisions. That should not result in a hue and cry to stop the process anymore than that kitchen counter fire should be reason to burn the house down.

Let's make those who shout "no more earmarks" be specific about what they mean: Are they referring only to corrupt earmarks, to all earmarks, or just to earmarks that don't come to them? Let's ask them to stop using shorthand to describe a complex problem. Our country's problems are complex, the solutions are all full of challenges, and the last thing we need is to clutter the public debate with bumper sticker slogans that have become meaningless.

• Dave Dierdorff is a retired legislative attorney who lives in Douglas.

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