“As the Trump presidency fades to black, it is time for Washington to get to work. In embracing Joe Biden, the American people cast a vote for civility, pragmatism and competence. Lawmakers now have a duty to hunker down and find ways to make progress on critical issues. But with both chambers of Congress narrowly divided and ideologically polarized, coming together on even the most modest deals could prove daunting.
One promising move under consideration: bringing back congressional earmarks.
Loosely speaking, earmarks are spending requests — or, depending on your definition, also limited tax or tariff benefits — inserted into bills at the behest of individual lawmakers for the benefit of specific entities in specific locations. Think: funding for a domestic violence crisis center in Alaska or for STEM programs in a rural school district in Colorado.
In the big picture, earmarks add up to little more than a rounding error, generally constituting not more than 1 percent of the federal budget. They are used to determine spending priorities, not spending levels, meaning they determine how the pie gets divided rather than how big it is.
As conceived, earmarks allow the people who presumably best understand a state or district — its elected officials — to direct federal dollars to where they are most needed. In practice, they also gets used for all kinds of daffy or ill-conceived projects. Remember the infamous Bridge to Nowhere? Classic earmarking. At its most vile, the process veers into organized bribery, as special interests pursue ethically questionable, and occasionally illegal, means to get lawmakers to champion their pet issues. In the mid-2000s, a handful of earmark-related scandals landed some prominent political players in prison. Earmarks became a tidy symbol of government waste and corruption.