Bring Back Earmarks

July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Do we miss earmarks yet? Though it’s only July, the second session of the 112th U.S. Congress already threatens to eclipse the first in wholesale anomie. It took Congress months to pass even that most rudimentary conveyor of pork -- a transportation bill -- and that constituted a rare success.

Earmarks were accused of many ills over the years, but never of aiding and abetting such deep paralysis. If anything, they greased the gears of the Capitol, enabling even a broken-down legislative machine to spit out appropriations for road repair every so often. Was that so bad?

For something so reviled, earmarks can be surprisingly difficult to define. They are federal spending -- good, bad or otherwise -- targeted to a specific legislator’s district, allies or pet interest, often without the need for a competitive bid. The “Bridge to Nowhere” began not as a metaphor but as a steel-encased boondoggle planned in remote Alaska with a price tag of $398 million.

By 2005, when the congressional earmark-fest was at its rowdiest, the House Appropriations Committee received almost 35,000 earmark requests, more than 80 for each member of the House. Congress produced three times as many earmarks that year as in 1994. In 2006, earmark spending peaked at $67 billion.

Fallout from the scandals of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others, along with negative publicity about the “Bridge to Nowhere” and its ilk, eventually spooked Washington out of a bad habit. When Democrats took over the House in 2007, they instituted a rule change requiring disclosure of the names of earmark sponsors, a justification of the expense and a vow that the sponsor wouldn’t benefit financially. After taking over the House in 2011, Republicans swore off earmarks altogether.

Partisan Friction

Partisanship may be a national phenomenon; politics retains a local heartbeat. Passing a national transportation bill, for example, is a lot easier when the goodies are strategically dispersed to individual members’ districts, giving each a personal stake in the bill’s success.

The lack of earmarks may not be a significant contributor to the friction in Congress. But it doesn’t help. Besides, with no earmarks to award to local projects, legislators have a huge incentive to work behind closed doors, privately pressuring executive branch agencies to direct money to preferred recipients. A July 26 Bloomberg News report details a House vote in favor of continuing production of the Abrams battle tank over the Army’s objections. The cost of this earmark-by-another-name, a Cold War relic designed to confront Soviet forces, could be more than $2 billion. (It turns out the absence of earmarks isn’t so cheap either.)

In the interest of transparency, comity and public improvements -- roads and bridges need maintenance sooner or later -- we propose an end to the ban on earmarks, albeit with a twist.

Resurrect the reforms instituted in 2007 before the ban. Then, in addition to compelling earmark sponsors to disclose their names, provide a written rationale for the expense and swear that they will not profit financially from the project, ask them to do one more thing: find a sponsor from the other party.

Such a rule would accomplish two goals. First, it would require an earmark to pass a merit threshold. An earmark’s value would have to be sufficiently defensible that a member of the opposing party would be willing to endorse it. Second, it would be a spur to bipartisanship, even if it takes the form of horse-trading, with members swapping endorsements for each others’ earmarks.

Congressional Norms

The ways of Congress are not all set in marble. Norms of conduct have evolved over the years to help the place function. Senate filibusters, for example, were long reserved for special circumstances. Now they are deployed routinely, making the Senate less functional and democratic.

If Congress is to emerge from its current trauma, it will have to adopt new norms that discourage destructive partisanship and reward conduct in the public interest. It’s in that spirit that we propose the return of earmarks, with the stipulation that bipartisanship be stuffed into the sausage. The demand among lawmakers for earmarks is strong. If that need can be channeled to advance good public investments while also reducing partisan friction, the price will be a bargain.

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