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. 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. 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.
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.
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% 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 benefiting 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 Congress has always required pragmatism, compromise and highly imperfect solutions. There's no shame in that.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN BLOOMBERG OPINION