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Earmarks and Success Can Help Congress Get Its Groove Back

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.

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. 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. Republicans killed earmarks altogether when they gained control of the House in 2011.

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. 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.

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