Paul Jacob

It would be nice if we could blame it all on muddle.

It would be nice if government grows because everything's so complex that muddle begets muddle, and governments balloon — "evolve" — out of the booming, buzzing confusion of any mind set out to grasp it. It would let so many people off the hook. We could say, "forgive them, for they know not what they do."

But that's not quite the case.

Recently, a clash first between Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and then a clash between Ted Stevens of Alaska and that very same, persistant Oklahoman, brought the Senate to a rare moment of clarity, where it became obvious for all to see why government grows.

It grows because our politicians want it to grow.

Senator Coburn had this idea. He wanted to bring some semblance of balance to federal spending, so he took the occasion of increased spending for disaster relief to urge cutting some recently approved pork-barrel spending. Why not just delete a few earmarked spending items? He cited a sculpture garden in Washington state, an art museum in Nebraska, and a Rhode Island animal shelter as, er, good candidates for local, as opposed to federal, spending.

That's when Patty Murray spoke up. She fiercely defended the dominant congressional ideology that many wrongs make everything right. She made it quite clear that were her sculpture park pork singled out, she'd attack other "earmarked" items. Those marked for other senators.

Now, before I go on to the consequences of Ms. Murray's threat, I'd like to digress a moment. No one has ever fully explained to me this business about "earmarks." When I earmark a passage in a book, I fold over a small corner of the page. It flaps over like a dog's ear, and is thus duly marked.

But that turns out not to be the term's meaning. As Merriam-Webster puts it, an earmark is "a mark of identification on the ear of an animal."

How agricultural! It's gratifying to learn that the Senate's euphemism for "pork" is, well, a pig-raising-related concept.

And, of course, the Senate is in the business of raising pork. It's what senators trade — with special interests, the people who fund their re-election campaigns. So no single-minded career politician would allow his own earmarked livestock to be gored. Hence farmer Murray's threat.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.