We often think of the people we send to Congress as our representatives in Washington.

But they are also the federal government’s representatives to the people back home.

Congressional offices can be very helpful to constituents who are having problems with Social Security, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Small Business Administration and don’t know who to call.

And once again, a U.S. senator’s or representative’s district office is the place where you can get attention for an important local bridge replacement, a collapsing fire station or an economic development project that won’t get off the drawing board without federal funding.

That’s because Congress has brought back earmarks, or “congressionally directed spending,” which give members of the House and Senate more say over what gets funded in their state.

This week Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King released their list of earmark requests. U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden had published their requests earlier. The projects range from an elevator for the Safe Voices domestic violence resource center in Androscoggin County, with a price tag of $349,000, to $149 million to the Maine Department of Transportation, for a variety of infrastructure projects all over the state.

The proposals – which are not all expected to get funded – include fire stations, ambulances, wastewater treatment facilities and restorations of historic buildings. They are the kinds of locally important projects that might not get the attention of a federal bureaucrat but can get the support of a senator or representative.

Earmarks are back after a 10-year moratorium – and that’s a good thing.

After a series of scandals in the early 2000s, the term “earmark” became synonymous with political corruption. Individual members of Congress could secretly add a pet project to a have-to-pass spending bill, and one congressman spent more than seven years in prison for soliciting bribes to sneak lucrative procurement contracts into the federal budget.

Earmarks were also associated with runaway federal spending, which was never a fair rap. They never made up more than 1 percent of federal spending, and the federal budget and annual deficit continued to rise without them.

This time around, Congress has imposed rules on earmarks that make the scandals of 20 years ago less likely. There are no more secret lists of requests: Senators and representatives have to publish their proposals and sign declarations that they have no financial stake in the outcome.

And earmarks can be used only for projects involving nonprofit organizations or public entities, not companies looking to do business with the government.

Some advocates for restoring earmarks say this could bring back bipartisan deal-making, because members might be motivated to cross party lines to vote for a bill that includes an important project for their district.

Maybe. But more importantly, the elected officials who have to face the voters and have the deepest understanding of what their constituents need are also the point of contact for groups that want help from Washington.

Our representatives in Washington remain Washington’s representatives to us. That’s not corrupt politics – it’s democracy.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.