House Republican reformers this week cracked open the door for easing the ban on earmarks, and started a broader conversation at the same time, namely: who’s responsible for directing federal spending? Congressional Institute President Mark Strand authored an op-ed that ran in The Hill’s Congress Blog discussing those two points. From the piece:

“According to the Constitution, Congress holds the power of the purse. But in denying lawmakers the ability to direct spending, they cede that authority to the White House and federal agencies. If congressionally directed spending, also known as earmarks, is restored it makes most sense to do so as part of comprehensive reform of our dysfunctional budget process.”

The breakdown of the budgeting and authorizing processes in Congress helped lead to earmark abuse as they became a substitute for regular order. But without a functioning and transparent authorization process, earmarks turned into a free-for-all. And while earmarks themselves never accounted for an overwhelming amount of the federal budget, Strand wrote, “they became an outsized symbol of waste.”

Some Members fear earmarks on their own could lead to the same abuses as before. But when included as part of comprehensive budget reform, earmarks become a tool for congressional leaders to encourage bipartisan legislating. From the op-ed:

“Earmarks, if restored in a manner that requires complete transparency, can be a valuable part of a reformed budget process. Rather than tucking them into massive spending bills, each spending request should be debated openly as part of authorizing legislation – the policy bills that Congress is supposed to tackle on a regular basis. Plus, Congress must allow any Member raise a point of order to block amendments that increase spending above the limits the budget resolution sets.

“In addition to helping lawmakers fulfill their constitutional responsibility to direct spending, earmarks create opportunities for the political minority to participate in the process and accomplish important priorities for their districts, which gives them incentives to vote for authorization and appropriation bills. This leads to a less polarized environment in which bipartisan majorities can legislate effectively. …

“The 115th Congress has a chance to be a reform Congress, proving to voters that lawmakers are responding to their demands for change. …Real budget reform should transform Members of Congress from voters to legislators, actively advocating on behalf of their constituents, as the authors of the Constitution intended.”

Read the full op-ed here.