Earmark? Controversial term has vanished in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Recession? Bailout? Stimulus? Deficit?

Not at the U.S. Capitol.

The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington watchdog group that tracks the language used in congressional debate, found that none of those words has cracked the top 30 most frequently uttered terms so far in this year of economic agony.

"Health" was most popular, used 21,705 times since January, followed by "public," "service," "funds" and "fiscal."

The big four of constituent concern and media coverage were seldom heard: "Stimulus" came up only 3,961 times, good for 116th most mentioned.

Others: "deficits," 1,996 mentions, 361st; "recession," 1,309, or 630th, and "bailout," 824, way down at 1,090th place. Another popular controversy, earmarks, was cited only 938 times, for No. 948 on the list.

None of this is happening by accident.

Politicians conduct studies and polls to see what words voters will find soothing and what will be grating.

"Recession," for instance, "carries a resonance for older people. They may remember the recessions of the 1970s or even the Great Depression," said David Johnson, chief executive officer of Strategic Vision, an Atlanta-based political and corporate consulting firm.

The company, which advises Republican candidates, warns them against using "recession," as well as stimulus or bailout. Bailout, Johnson said, "reminds older people of the Great Society of the 1960s, and what many people considered giveaways." And while stimulus isn't linked to such memories, he found that "voters are often uncertain about the word, and often it is linked to the others."

Both parties are well aware of such attitudes, which is why February's $787 billion economic stimulus bill was the "American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009" and financial industry bailout was the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act."

The same lawmakers used the word "care" 10,739 times this year, "services" another 10,377 times and "children" 8,153 times. "Water" was mentioned on 9,864 occasions.

William Allison, Sunlight Foundation senior fellow, blamed this passion for euphemism in part on capital insiders feeding on themselves. Elected officials too often rely on consultants, polls and staff to parse their sentences so closely that "they end up speaking this artificial language," he said.

Ironically, such caution often hurts their public standing.

"Congress is protecting itself and creating more cynicism at the same time," said Allan Louden, a political communication expert at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

The public caught on long ago. Congress tried to call tax increases "revenue enhancements" in the 1980s, and welfare programs "temporary assistance to needy families" in the 1990s.

Republicans also have been able to rebrand the estate tax _which sounds like a tax on rich people — as the "death tax." That tax is scheduled to end next year, though President Barack Obama wants to keep it on estates of the very wealthy.

While the news media often tone down the euphemism mania by reporting in plain language, lawmakers still love their verbal comfort food.

Wednesday, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement saying that the April 15 tax deadline day was going to be easier "because of our economic recovery plan."

Same old phrases, and no surprise to Louden:

"It proves that Congress is a political institution."

ON THE WEB

Sunlight Foundation survey of 2009 congressional language

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