One of the most vilified practices in Congress could help restore some fiscal sanity – so long as it’s done with transparency. This is what Congressional Institute President Mark Strand and Research Director Tim Lang argue in a substantial article for the Stanford Law Review Online.

We’re talking about earmarks. The Constitution gives Congress the “power of the purse” but by not directing Federal spending, lawmakers are actually ceding this authority to the Executive Branch. Instead of providing a check against departments and agencies use the funds allocated to them, Congress is failing in this critical responsibility. Being in charge of how much money the Federal Government spends is also how Members of Congress are accountable to their constituents. From the article:

Looking out for their constituents is the most important characteristic of a member of Congress, and they should be the person whose responsibility it is, within the federal system, to advocate for their needs. To that end, Congress possesses the authority to set policy through law and make spending decisions. To say that Congress should not be entrusted with the responsibility of earmarking because of the potential for corruption undercuts the constitutional principle that the legislature decides how to spend funds.

Congress halted earmarking after Republicans retook control of the U.S. House in 2010. House Republicans passed a rule for their Conference that they wouldn’t earmark; the Senate, understanding that no legislation would move through if it contained earmarks, followed suit. Fiscal watchdogs hailed this as a step toward getting Federal spending under control but that isn’t what’s happened. In fact, earmarks have always accounted for a miniscule slice of the U.S. Government’s budget so stopping them has barely made a dent. From the article (emphasis added):

Aside from questions about accountability and corruption, there is the question of the extent to which earmarking drives up the deficit. Even in their heyday, earmarks were a relatively small percentage of the Federal budget. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, an anti-earmark group, earmarks peaked at $29 billion in fiscal year 2006. By comparison, government spending for that fiscal year was $2.65 trillion. This means earmarks accounted for just under 1.1 percent of Federal spending for fiscal year 2006. Concerns about the effect of earmarks on the Federal debt are somewhat misplaced.

Among the benefits of reintroducing earmarks is that it would incentive more Members of Congress to participate in the legislative process, especially those in the minority party. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for those with little seniority, those who aren’t considered especially vulnerable in the next election, or those who have clashed with the leadership at times to point to significant legislative achievements. It can be a real game-changer for every lawmaker to feel like they have some input into the sausage-making process because they stand to benefit by securing a tangible item for their district.

The key to earmarks being part of good governance lies in reintroducing them properly. Strand and Lang discuss the current budget dysfunction and how it is exacerbated by the breakdown of the appropriations and authorizations processes. Congress should use authorizations to direct policy by setting funding limitations for approved (or authorized) programs – in other words, putting money where the priorities are. Then, through the appropriations process, lawmakers make sure the right amount of money is put into the right spending bucket. But as the article notes, budget dysfunction has led to major problems. From the piece:

Although adopting a budget resolution should precede considering spending bills, Congress rarely does so before the deadline on April 15—if it does at all. For fiscal years 2005 through 2014, Congress failed to pass a budget resolution at all on six occasions and was late in adopting a resolution in the remaining four. Appropriations bills are similarly late. However, as the Constitution requires the enactment of an appropriation bill before the executive branch may spend money, Congress typically resorts to temporary continuing resolutions until proper appropriations are passed. On three occasions in the last five years, funding has expired before new appropriations were adopted, resulting in government shutdowns. With an ad hoc budget process such as the government has today, it is little wonder that the earmark process required reform too.

Strand and Lang make a compelling argument for reinstating earmarks in a transparent, responsible manner. Yes, they were abused in the past. That does not mean they cannot be used as part of smart budgeting. In the age of social media, transparency in spending bills can be achieved.

Read the full article here.