Symbolic Language in Budget Discussions

Like much of what is discussed in National politics, the debate over the federal budget is full of language and symbolism that is carefully crafted to send particular messages about each political party’s attitude toward spending. There are a group of politicians called “deficit hawks”. This is a group that typically opposes any public spending that they deem to be superfluous. The term “hawk” in politics is typically ascribed to those who favor aggressive military action, but in this case, it is applied by critics to create the impression that those who oppose spending are aggressive and set in their ways.

The term is used to invoke the image of a myopic, relentless force for the reduction of spending. Depending one’s own beliefs, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. Language is often used in the budget debates in this manner to invoke certain feelings or implications with respect to funding matters. An example of this concept is in the area of taxation. In particular, the for of taxation formally known as the “estate tax”, which consists of a tax on inherited assets, is referred to by critics as the “death tax.

” The obvious strategy in this case is to invoke the negative connotations of death when considering this issue. On the flip side, supporters of this form of taxation often refer to it as a “windfall tax” or an “inheritance tax”. These terms give the impression that the assets involved are “found money” and that taxation of such assets is not unreasonable. Another term with negative connotations in the budget debate is the term “tax and spend”. This is a term used by fiscal conservatives to criticize a budgetary policy that focuses on stimulating the economy and providing social services funded through taxation.

Since both “tax” and “spend” are terms that have negative connotations, an impression is created that spending programs are inherently “bad” is created by the use of the term. Since a vast majority of the money used by our Government is obtained through taxes, it is disingenuous for politicians to characterize taxes as a “bad” thing. Also, since the government meets its constitutional responsibilities to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare of its citizens by spending money, largely in our own economy, to imply that such spending is inherently “bad” is a bit precious as well.

Perhaps the most interesting verbal symbol that is used in the budget debates is the practice of referring to Social Security, Medicare, and other programs as “entitlements. ” This has become common practice among politicians of all ideological leanings. The inherent implication in the use of such a term is that citizens unjustly or unfairly expect these benefits from their government. Such an interpretation tends to ignore the fact that working citizens pay an enormous proportion of their gross income for these programs. Occasionally, a tangible symbol is brought out during budget debates.

In the 1980s, Senator William Proxmire began issuing an award called the “Golden Fleece” award, (Senator…1996)  which he gifted upon the politician who proposed the most ridiculous, expensive and worthless budget add0on in the budget debating session. Although Proxmire passed away in 1995, (Senator…1996)  and the award was discontinued in 1988, (Senator…1996)  it was revived by an organization called Taxpayers for Common Sense in 2000. The Golden Fleece award is a symbol of government waste and irresponsibility. (Senator…1996)

Many of the “Golden Fleece” awards were given when the government permitted budget items that had a limited regional benefit. Such items came from members of congress who were promoting the welfare of their own districts or states by having the Federal Government pay for projects the localities could not afford. Coined during the Depression, this term also has come to symbolize government waste, and corruption, as boondoggles are often given to members of congress by the major parties in exchange for influence and support for legislation. The budget debate is couched in symbolic language.

It is used to cast certain ideas in a positive or negative light, and to hide from the untrained ear what is actually being said and done in the budget process. Some might call the practice inappropriate, but it does tend to make the debates less combative, and more productive, as opposing interests can make their points through creative use of symbolism, rather than from shouting one another down.


“Senator William Proxmire” 1996. Retrieved November 21st, 2008 from Wisconsin State Historical Society website: http://www. wisconsinhistory. org/topics/proxmire/