At a time when Americans say they are fed up with dysfunction in Washington, it sounds counterintuitive to suggest bringing back earmarks, the derided practice of allowing lawmakers to secure federal funding for projects in their home districts. It’s actually not.

Republican lawmakers briefly brought up the idea of a limited return of earmarks last week. They were quickly shut down by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is eager to appear sympathetic to voters who want to “drain the swamp” that they believe Washington has become.

The discussion isn’t over — Ryan did allow a task force to study a return of earmarks — and it shouldn’t be.

Before they were banned by congressional leadership in 2010, earmarks accounted for about 1 percent of federal spending. They sparked outsized outrage, however. This was largely because a few powerful longtime senators collected huge sums of money for their rural states — yes, we’re thinking of Alaska and West Virginia.

But banning all earmarks, rather than reforming their allocation and use, has worsened dysfunction in the capitol, Jonathan Rauch argued persuasively in The Atlantic last summer. Earmarks, like seniority and experienced congressional staffs, ensured that Congress was functional. What the public came to deride as closed-door deals and cronyism actually worked. Members had to engage in give-and-take, and leaders could forge compromises by promising members of their caucus things they wanted — money for their home districts and key committee assignments.

Without any of this, Rauch writes, it is no surprise that Congress hasn’t passed an annual appropriations bill in two decades or completed other needed work that requires compromise, not grandstanding.

“The political cost has also been high: Congressional leaders lost one of their last remaining tools to induce followership and team play,” Rauch writes.

Earmarks also served a practical purpose. Projects that got earmark funding were usually too small to appear on the radar of White House budget writers, so they weren’t included in the spending plans they prepared, which can prove especially detrimental to small states such as Maine unless there’s an alternative way to include such projects.

Just because small projects don’t make the first cut of the federal budget doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile or well vetted and, therefore, worthy of federal funding. As long as members of Congress can defend such spending to voters, and explain why one project won funding and others did not, allocating a small slice of federal funds through earmarks is reasonable.

Rep. Chellie Pingree had an effective way to do just this. She asked those requesting funding to explain their project in a three-minute presentation to her staff. The requests were videotaped and then posted on her congressional website where the public could view them.

“What our office saw is what the public saw, which I thought was very important,” Pingree said this week in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “It also showed people the level of need in the community and what role federal funding could play. The loss of earmarks has meant that we’ve lost some flexibility in that funding, and I don’t think grants have fully filled in the gap.”

This is an important point. Worthwhile projects at universities, businesses, nonprofits and community service organizations lost a source of funding, which hasn’t been replaced.

Instead of a ban, a more realistic approach would be to acknowledge that earmarks serve a purpose but that they should be transparent. Posting earmarks requests and funding on the web is one way to accomplish this.

Congress also could consider capping earmark spending and requiring that it be spread across the country.

Certainly, earmarks were abused. But an outright ban has had negative consequences far beyond what their critics envisioned. A smart return of earmarks — with transparency and oversight — is overdue, and it may even improve our democracy.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...