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Former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid despised the word “earmarks.” He insisted on using the less colorful but more precise term “congressionally directed spending.” Either way, what he was addressing was the practice by members of Congress of inserting into spending bills instructions that direct funds to projects designed to benefit their states or congressional districts. Reid told me that members of Congress knew better the needs of their constituencies than bureaucrats who would dispense money according to a federal formula. But in the aftermath of a number of revelations of abuses of earmarking, House Republicans in 2011 abolished the practice and the Senate followed suit. But after a decade of banishment, the earmarks are about to make a comeback and I, for one, think it’s a great idea.
Party leaders in Congress would be the most obvious beneficiaries of the restoration of earmarks, because they can be dispensed as incentives to members to fall into line behind them. There are ways, of course, to induce recalcitrant members to support leadership, but they are blunt instruments such as stripping such members of their committee assignments.
Earmarks got a bad name
Perhaps the career of House Speaker John Boehner would not have been cut short in 2015 had he been able to use the carrot of an earmark rather then the stick of removal from a committee on members who wouldn’t support him. A number of members of the conservative Freedom Caucus were vocally opposed to legislation supported by the speaker, so Boehner lowered the boom on one of the most vocal, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, by removing the congressman from his seat on the Agriculture Committee.
For a member of Congress from Kansas to lose his seat on the committee most intimately connected to economy of his state doomed Huelskamp, who lost his seat in the GOP primary but not before participating in the coup that forced Boehner from the speakership. Exercising the power to reward rather than the power to punish would probably saved the careers of both men.
Conspicuous and extravagant earmarks by members of Congress gave the practice a bad name. Most conspicuous was the earmark placed in the 2005 appropriations bill by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, for a bridge across the Tongass Narrows from the town of Ketchikan to Gravina Island, a settlement of only 50 people.
A lengthy battle ensued over the funding of the bridge, which would almost be equal in length to the Golden Gate bridge. It was originally championed by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but it became an embarrassment to her as the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008, and by 2015 the project had been abandoned completely. But even its cancelation did not remove the stigma from earmarks.
It is important, however, to distinguish extravagant boondoggles from useful projects of much smaller scale. There are often worthy local undertakings whose needs might be more efficiently addressed by an amendment inserted in an appropriations bill that must be passed than to go through the process of writing grant proposals that must go through several layers of bureaucracy and may not receive funding: a grant to a Civil Air Patrol unit to support its search and rescue mission, money for a commemorative project in a local library, or funds for a new ambulance for a rural medical emergency unit would be typical of the projects supported.
Earmarks are not budget busters
We have to ask whether strengthening the hands of party leadership and the House and Senate appropriations committees by endowing them with the power to grant these favors strengthens the institution of Congress. I think it does.
Earmarks are not budget busters. They involve no new appropriations. Rather, they tap existing pots of money and merely redirect them to projects deemed worthy by members of Congress rather than distributed by formulas over which members have no control.
There is also reason to believe that earmarks might promote more bipartisanship. If the announcement by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is to be credited, the earmarks will be available to both Democrats and Republicans. In the Senate where amendments by members of the minority are often blocked, bipartisan earmarking would enable senators of the minority party to direct money to projects in their states.
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From a constitutional perspective, earmarking is wholly consistent with Congress’ power of the purse, and earmarked funds can be directed exclusively to nonprofit organizations so that the risk of corruption will be reduced. Furthermore, the earmarking must be transparent with the name of a member or senator attached — not only to allow the individual lawmaker to claim credit for worthy projects but also to know who to pin the blame on for the stinkers.
Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Welcome back, earmarks. They're not corrupt; they're spending.