Earmarks are suddenly in vogue. The practice was banned in 2011. President Donald Trump suggested it might be time to bring them back — and he might be on to something.
At their peak, in 2006, they accounted for only $67 billion of a $2.5-trillion-plus budget. And they were a significant tool to direct federal dollars to local needs.
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 won’t be fulfilled without better cooperation.
Earmarks can help — a bit. Dispensing cherished goodies to members can help keep them attentive to leadership’s wishes. Ideally, that would include the rare occasions on which leaders wish for a bipartisan outcome. Trouble is, congressional leaders too rarely do.
So instead of bringing back old-time earmarks, Congress should bring them back with more rigor and a bipartisan twist:
— Adopt a 2007 rule requiring disclosure sponsor names, a justification of the expense and a vow that the sponsor won’t benefit financially.
— Institute random audits to promote good behavior.
— Require a co-sponsor from the opposite party to encourage a merit threshold. No member of an opposing party would want to have her name on a boondoggle. And it would inspire the bipartisan back-scratching Congress 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 — including earmarks — are what enable the complicated, sometimes balky, constitutional system to function. Bring them back.