Congress’ Silk Purse

During the Capitol Hill budget debates, many spectators must have found the use of the term “earmarking” somewhat strange.  What does it have to do with budgeting?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


The term refers to the practice of specifying that a portion of a generalized spending bill will be used for a certain purpose—for example, a bridge in Alaska.  In theory, this practice reduces the power of the bureaucracy and requires Congress to become more accountable for spending decisions.  In practice, the degree of specificity makes it easier to create alliances to increase overall spending.  I’ll back your bridge, if you back my convention center—and so on.


When I grew up in rural Louisiana, “earmarking” was something we did to our pigs.  There wasn’t a lot of money to purchase feed, so a few weeks after a sow delivered her litter, we’d cut a pattern in the ears of the piglets and release them into the woods.  As in many tribal cultures, the woods were the commons, used by all for common pasturage (pigs are omnivores, eating routs, nuts, and almost anything else).  A few years later, we and our neighbors would get our hog-hunting dogs and we’d all traipse out to the woods to round up the pigs.  The “earmarks” would allow them to be sorted out.


That’s the logic behind linking the term “earmark” to the spending policies on Capitol Hill:  everyone tosses pork in, and retrieves it once it’s fat up enough to take home.