More Horse-Trading, Please
Earmarks are suddenly in vogue. The practice, which enabled members of Congress to direct appropriations to pet projects, was banned in 2011. President Donald Trump last week suggested it might be time to bring them back -- and he might be on to something.
Earmarks attracted a lot of justified mockery (anyone remember the "Bridge to Nowhere"?) and unjustified effort (in 2005, there were almost 35,000 earmark requests). But they were never a big part of federal spending; at their peak, in 2006, they accounted for $67 billion of a $2.5-trillion-plus budget. And they were a significant tool to direct federal dollars to local needs, including the occasional boondoggle.
With Congress in deep disrepair, locked in partisan and intra-partisan warfare, earmarks are getting a second look mostly as a way to help grease the rusty wheels of legislation. Congress may have passed a huge tax cut last year, but this year's legislative wish list -- including immigration reform and infrastructure spending, to name two items -- won't be fulfilled without better cooperation between Democrats and Republicans (and conservative Republicans and even more conservative Republicans).
Earmarks can help -- a bit. Dispensing cherished goodies to rank-and-file members can help keep them attentive to leadership's wishes. Ideally, that would include the rare occasions on which congressional leaders wish for a bipartisan outcome. Trouble is, congressional leaders too rarely do.
So instead of bringing back the old-time earmarks, Congress should bring them back with more rigor and a bipartisan twist.
First: Adopt the rule, established in 2007, requiring disclosure of the names of earmark sponsors, a justification of the expense and a vow that the sponsor won’t benefit financially.
Second: Institute a practice of random audits to further promote good behavior.
Third: Require a co-sponsor for every earmark -- and further require that the sponsor be from the opposite party. This rule would accomplish two goals. It would encourage a merit threshold, since no member of an opposing party would want to have her name on a boondoggle that doesn't even benefit her own district. And it would inspire the kind of bipartisan back-scratching that Congress so desperately needs. Members who horse-trade together may be less inclined to vilify each other.
Governing norms are under assault in Washington. Many were eroding long before Trump came to town. Yet those norms -- which include earmarks -- are what enable the U.S.'s complicated, sometimes balky, constitutional system to function. Bring them back.
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