One surefire way to get our do-nothing Congress to do something

It's time to resurrect a political tool with a long and sordid history

(Image credit: (iStock))

In the 1986 film The Mission, Robert DeNiro plays a former slaver and soldier who finds God in the jungles of South America and throws his weapons and armor into a river, hoping to become a better, more holy man. Only later, when the people he wants to serve need his help, and a young boy retrieves his swords from the bottom of the river, does DeNiro's character embrace his true self: a flawed, but effective, warrior.

A few years ago, the leaders of the U.S. Congress, in a similar fit of attempted self-reinvention, symbolically abandoned one of their most effective legislative weapons. It's time to fish it out of the river again.

Before naming it, though, here are a few reasons why:

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  • It would give locally elected officials more control over how federal tax dollars are spent in the parts of the country they represent.
  • It would reduce the power of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. to make top down decisions about things as varied as transportation infrastructure, the construction of public buildings, and the funding of local research projects.
  • It would make it possible for targeted tax breaks and exemption from certain fees to help new or economically vital industries stay competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.
  • Best of all, it would turn our barely functional Congress back into something resembling a productive legislative body by handing Congressional leaders a tool they could use to encourage compromise and punish lawmakers standing in the way of progress.

On its face, it sounds like a no-brainer, right? Fish that thing out of the river. Do it now.

The problem is that the weapon in question has a long and sordid history in Washington, and many on the left and right have a visceral reaction to the idea of bringing it back.

The weapon, of course, is the earmark.

Earmarks are, at their core, directed spending of public money at the order of Congress. They can include the construction of bridges, roads, public parks, and much more. Before they were eliminated as a regular part of the legislative process in 2011, the earmark was also a vital tool for party leaders trying to make Congress work.

Within the last decade, the loss of earmarks combined with the rise of outside interest groups willing to fund political campaigns removed much of the ability of leaders in Congress to discipline rank-and-file members.

A generation ago, a congressman wavering on a vote important to his party might get a visit from a party leader offering some sort of benefit for his or her district — a new bridge, a fee exemption for a key local industry — as an incentive to take a compromise position.

On the flip side, a member whose grandstanding had become a thorn in the side of his party's leadership could expect a warning that unless he tones things down, he will find special projects and benefits directed away from his district.

Ugly? Yes. Transactional? Yeah, obviously.

If nothing else, the earmark system was effective at forcing lawmakers to compromise in a way that current legislators, faced with a toothless leadership, don't have to.

Without doubt, the system was subject to abuse. Members of Congress used earmarks to fund vanity projects and, in the worst case, to direct money to undeserving campaign supporters. But in a time when electronic information systems make analysis of spending bills simpler and open to anyone with a computer, much of that sort of misuse is easily detected.

It's time to bring back the earmark, and to treat it for what it is: a reward for party loyalty.

That is not, of course, to say that party loyalty is a desirable goal in itself. All it does is create a new reason for those who aren't reflexive ideologues to consider cooperation.

There are more than a few members of Congress whose stock in trade with voters is a refusal to toe the party line. Presumably, staying true to their ideals wouldn't cost them any elections.

Others, with constituents not genetically opposed to compromise, would have to make a decision about when to stand up for their principles and when to bend a little. In theory, the reward would be the opportunity to campaign for votes that aren't strictly within your party's cultural and political demographic.

Oddly, the most adamant opponent of a return to earmarks is the man whom they would help the most: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The speaker, since 2011, has repeatedly lost control of the House Republican conference on votes key to Republican leadership.

But Boehner has consistently refused to fish his most effective weapon out of the river.

"As long as I'm here, no earmarks," he told Fox News this summer.

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