- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

In what amounts to another dubious milestone for Congress, “earmarks” - the pork-barrel spending projects loved by lawmakers but hated by those looking to control spending - is now part of the dictionary.

Merriam-Webster Inc., guardian of the English language, earlier this month announced that it’s adding a third definition to the term “earmark” to recognize the growing use of the word.

It’s the latest sign that the practice of directing money back home for pet projects is becoming a potent political issue, and the editors at Merriam-Webster said they credited Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, for pushing the word into the lexicon.

“I don’t doubt it’s been an important part of the Beltway lingo or other statehouses around the land for quite some time, but it was clearly the 2008 election that launched it into a household term,” said Thomas Pitoniak, associate editor at Merriam-Webster.

The noun “earmark” has been in use for centuries. It originally meant a notch marked on livestock’s ear and later came to include any identifying mark. The new definition calls it “a provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization.”

That dry definition can’t obscure what has become a bitter battle that rages almost daily in the halls of Congress over who spends taxpayer money, how much they spend and on what.

Most members of Congress support earmarks, arguing that the Constitution gives the legislature the power of the purse. The practice has been going on for decades. It reached new levels when Republicans control Congress, and while Democrats have written new rules, they have not banned earmarks.

“I don’t think the bureaucrats have the authority under the Constitution to appropriate money. That’s the job of this Congress, this House and the Appropriations Committee,” said Rep. Marion Berry, Arkansas Democrat, in fighting to preserve an earmark to spend federal money on a truck driver training course in his district.

But a small band of opponents vocally opposes earmarks. Armed with boondoggles such as Alaska’s so-called “bridge to nowhere,” the opponents have been making headway in forcing attention to the issue.

“Appropriators have been trying to find the word ‘earmark’ in the Constitution for years. At least now they’ll be able to find it in the dictionary,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a chief earmark grinch.

Last week, he spent hours on the House floor trying to scuttle earmarks such as Mr. Berry’s truck driver program or a “green business incubator” in Montgomery County, Md. He lost all 17 attempts to strip funding, regularly losing by lopsided margins of 200 votes or more.

Mr. Flake, who grew up on a cattle ranch and was familiar with the original definition of “earmark” from a young age, said, “I was plenty familiar with that. I didn’t much like the practice then.”

Not everyone even agrees to what an “earmark” means in the legislative sense.

In a 2006 report, the Congressional Research Service - beset by all the vagaries of legislative language - struggled to say what constitutes an earmark. They said it varies from bill to bill.

“For some bills, an earmark may refer to funds set aside within an account for a specified program, project, activity, institution, or location. In others, the application may reflect a more narrow set of directives to fund individual projects, locations, or institutions,” the service said.

Mr. Pitoniak at Merriam-Webster said the dictionary doesn’t have those same constraints and was able to come up with a definition based on everyday use in major publications.

He said it was fitting Mr. McCain helped popularize a livestock-related term, because he is also known as a maverick - a word that derives from Samuel Maverick, a Texan who got a reputation in the 19th century for bucking conventional practice because he refused to brand his cattle.

Mr. Pitoniak said having a word recognized by the dictionary “is a reflection of culture and its historical context.”

But don’t bother looking for a picture to illustrate earmarks such as the now-scrapped “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Mr. Pitoniak said they try to play it safe politically and wouldn’t want to single out any project.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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