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Earmarks Can Help Congress Get Its Groove Back

Americans have little faith left in Congress. There is mounting evidence that members of Congress have developed a similarly low opinion of themselves (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas emphatically excepted). What everyone needs now is a confidence booster.

To break the cycle of failure, partisan recrimination and stalemate on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans need something that looks, smells and feels like bipartisan success. And they could achieve that by aiming for modest goals. Rather than try right away to fix the federal budget or agree on health-care policy, they need small, achievable steps — as if they were a couple on one of those weekend getaways intended to rekindle a chilly marriage.

One such step could be to reauthorize a law supporting adoptions of foster children. Legislation to accomplish this is working its way through the House, and a similar bill is circulating in the Senate Finance Committee. Both could enable Congress to exercise its bipartisan muscle, currently at risk of atrophy. There is unlikely to be a wide gulf on this issue between Republicans and Democrats, or between the House and Senate. And passage would enable Congress to accomplish something useful to some Americans.

With that success under its belt, Congress could make a structural change that would both please members and grease the wheels for future cooperation: Bring back earmarks.

Congress reformed earmarks — spending targeted to a specific legislator’s district, allies or pet project — in 2007, after spending on them had skyrocketed and the “Bridge to Nowhere” and other boondoggles gave them all a bad name. A new rule required disclosure of the names of earmark sponsors, a justification of the expense and a vow that the sponsor wouldn’t benefit financially. Republicans killed earmarks altogether when they gained control of the House in 2011.

This hasn’t been an unqualified improvement, however. With no earmarks to dole out, leaders have a harder time maintaining order in the ranks, and legislators have an incentive to pressure executive branch agencies behind closed doors to fund pet projects.

So one good way to jump-start a stalled Congress would be to resurrect earmarks — complete with the 2007 reforms and an extra bipartisan twist. Any legislator who proposes an earmark should be required to enlist a sponsor from the other party. The earmark would have to have sufficient merit that a partisan opponent would be willingly associated with it. At the very least, this would spur bipartisan horse trading, building valuable working relationships — and, who knows, maybe even a little trust — across the partisan divide.

Productive communication is as important in Congress as in any other work environment. We have just witnessed, once again, the destructive power of hyperpartisanship. What a relief it would be now to see Democrats and Republicans move forward cooperatively, even just a couple of steps.

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