The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want a functioning legislative branch? Bring back earmarks.

President Trump has suggested that earmarks could help restore comity to Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trent Lott, a Republican, served as Senate majority leader and represented Mississippi in Congress for 35 years. John Breaux served as Democratic chief deputy whip in the Senate and represented Louisiana for 33 years. They co-chair Squire Patton Boggs's public policy and lobbying practice.

Throughout U.S. history, earmarks have been directly connected to "pay-for-play" activities in Congress and have promoted wasteful spending such as the "bridge to nowhere."

We recognize this reality. And yet, as a former Senate majority leader and a former chief deputy whip in the Senate, we know that changes must occur if we want to return Congress to its role as a functioning body. For that reason, we believe it is time to bridge the partisan divide and remove the ban on earmarks.

Yes, it is a bad idea to give members of Congress bundles of money to spend on unrelated projects in their districts with no check or balance. But that does not need to be the case. With proper safeguards, earmarks can promote a functioning congressional system.

While the goal of ridding Washington of controversy and wasteful spending was genuine, it has proved unsuccessful. Article I of the Constitution grants Congress considerable — yet constrained — power of the purse. This power instills the authority to direct spending, including earmarks, in an appropriate manner. When congressional leaders officially banned earmarks in 2011, they took bargaining power away from elected officials and placed it in the hands of bureaucrats. Thus began the constant nightmare of government shutdowns and budget showdowns, as we have seen over the past week.

With the right framework, earmarks can place this authority back in the hands of elected representatives and promote a more functional Congress with a sense of accountability.

The first step to reinstating earmarks is instituting a transparent process that would require lawmakers to attach his or her name to the earmark and provide a description of the funds' intended use. The supporting member would then be subject to a type of oversight in which they would report back to Congress on the success of the earmark and the final cost of the project.

Congress could also establish guidelines that limit who can receive earmarks and for what purposes. Earmarks given to private entities, for example, could be limited to activities that benefit the public, such as research and development. The strongest use of earmarks could be to advance the infrastructure needs of states, cities and counties, as well as our public schools and universities.

People often ask us what is wrong with Congress and why Congress fails to pass vital legislation. One answer is fairly straightforward: The bargaining tools necessary to pass bipartisan legislation no longer exist. Members of Congress understandably seek to represent their states and districts in the best way possible — including voting for bills that benefit constituents directly. However, every member needs a valid reason to vote for a bill.

In 2005, like today, there was a need to rebuild America's infrastructure, and bipartisan support was critical. Using earmarks, we secured support from senators on both sides of the aisle. Senators ultimately negotiated a deal that would benefit their states, accomplished through earmarks to bolster investment for particular projects.

Today, our nation faces a litany of challenges. And yet we expect President Trump and lawmakers in Congress to tackle them with their hands tied. It's time we reform the system to allow our representatives to do what they were elected to do. It's time we reverse the ban on earmarks.

Read more on this issue:

James T. Walsh, Melanie Sloan, Rich Gold and Craig Holman: The case for restoring earmarks

Michael Steel: Yes, Congress is broken. But earmarks will only make it worse.

Mike DeBonis and Elise Viebeck: Trump's embrace of earmarks spurs push for congressional revival

Chris Cillizza: Let's bring back earmarks please