Just don’t call them earmarks.

Plans are in the works to revive a legislative procedure in which lawmakers can tie funding in appropriations bills to specific projects – airports, bridges, museums – in their home state or district. The process will now be referred to by the serene euphemism of “community project funding,” since the traditional terms (earmarking, pork, horse-trading) have come into disrepute. Whatever it’s called, it’s a good idea.

Earmarking got a bad rap over the years, and not entirely without reason. Total spending on such measures rose from less than $3 billion in 1991 to $29 billion at its peak in 2006. Tales of misspent funds proliferated. Favors were exchanged. Crimes were committed. You might recall a $223 million set-aside for connecting a remote Alaskan town to a yet more remote island. An uproar over this “bridge to nowhere” was one reason both parties suspended earmarks altogether in 2011.

In fact, though, such boondoggles were the exception. Over the years, lawmakers generally requested small-dollar earmarks to solve local problems or fund workaday projects. The process often made Congress more responsive to regional needs and legislators more attentive to what they were passing. Because earmarks merely directed funds that were already being appropriated, moreover, they required no new spending and added nothing to budget deficits.

More important, they created incentives for compromise. A lawmaker looking to advance a general-interest bill could sweeten the pot by funding local initiatives favored by an opposition member. This gave the minority an interest in governing, encouraged bipartisanship, and helped resolve collective-action problems. Although unlovely, it was often quite consequential: Both George W. Bush’s Medicare expansion and Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act relied on earmarks (broadly defined) for passage.

In addition to reviving the art of bargaining, restoring the practice might have some further benefits. It would help Congress reclaim the power of the purse from anonymous executive-branch bureaucrats. It might ease the drama and chaos that has attended budget fights in recent years. It might even – perish the thought – encourage moderation by giving congressional leaders more tools to discipline the loony fringes.

Conceivably, upholding the earmark moratorium might still be worth it to get government spending under control. Yet no one would mistake the years that followed the ban for an era of fiscal discipline. Partly that’s because lawmakers have devised more opaque and informal methods of wrangling bureaucrats to their ends. But mostly it’s because the vast majority of federal spending – Medicare, Social Security and so on – proceeds on autopilot; earmarks have never made up more than a minuscule fraction of a given budget.

On balance, then, the benefits to earmarking far outweigh the drawbacks – particularly if Congress imposes rules to maximize transparency.

Many prudent reforms had already been put in place before the ban, including requirements that lawmakers attach their own names (and those of any beneficiaries) to earmarks and publish the details on their websites. These should be reinstated as the practice is phased back in. House Democrats are mulling further reforms, including capping the total funding for such projects at 1 percent of discretionary spending, limiting the number of requests per lawmaker, requiring evidence of community support for such initiatives, and prohibiting members and their relatives from financially benefitting from them. Such rules amount to codifying common sense.

Restoring earmarks won’t resolve all of America’s political problems, of course. But from the Compromise of 1790 to the current imbroglio over pandemic relief, getting things done in the U.S. Congress has always required pragmatism, compromise and highly imperfect solutions. There’s no shame in that.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.