In this Feb. 26, 2021, file photo House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Baksheesh.  

That was a term I learned early on in Afghanistan. It was a cultural relic where gifts are given to those you respect in order to earn their trust, favor and help get things done.

Or maybe it was a bribe. It depends on your perspective.

The practice offends Western sensibilities. Particularly when “baksheesh” is required to get government officials to do their jobs. It seems an awful lot like corruption. And, in many cases, that is exactly what it was.

Good thing we are above that, right?

It depends on your perspective.

Just over a decade ago, I — like many Americans — was pretty angry at Washington. The legislative machinations to enact Obamacare drove me wild. I didn’t feel quite so alone, even though I was going to school in Massachusetts at the time.

I didn’t feel alone because Massachusetts elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate. To replace Ted Kennedy.

The popular zeitgeist leading to a GOP victory in the Bay State had many facets, but there were some common goals. Enactment of congressional term limits was one. The abolition of earmarks was another.

I supported both of them at the time. With a little more age and, hopefully, more perspective, I’m not sure I do anymore.  

The Bangor Daily News reported this week on the $300 million in Maine-directed spending floating around congressional budget proposals. You can call them whatever you want. “Earmarks.”  “Legislatively directed spending.” “Baksheesh.”

The old earmark regime had plenty wrong with it. California Rep. Duke Cunningham was famously convicted for taking bribes in exchange for earmarks; a brazen quid pro quo. Meanwhile, in order to pass “Obamacare,” Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid famously negotiated the “Cornhusker kickback” to appease Sen. Ben Nelson, a critical 60th vote in the Senate.

That deal provided that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the costs for Nebraska’s “Medicaid expansion.” Forever. Something no other state received, although others got their own “baksheesh.

There was plenty not to like.

But banning earmarks did not usher in a world of good governance in Washington. All that seemed to happen was a worsening of the partisanship and strife that has defined the last decade.

Maybe the Democratic majority’s decision to bring back earmarks isn’t their worst idea.

The reality is that any negotiation requires some give and take. A business deal is never wholly one way; both sides need to get something, even if neither gets everything. A relationship is pretty toxic if only one person ever gets their way, always running roughshod over their partner. Even parenting requires give and take. Sometimes you pick your battles.

Policymaking is no different.

Earmarks — done correctly — can serve a role in making Washington more functional again. When disparate interests get close on large policy objectives, they can help bridge a gap.  

They need a robust and transparent process to protect against the abuses typified by Cunningham and Reid. But elected officials in Washington generally have a better sense of “needs on the ground” in their home states.  

Do they get political brownie points for bringing home bacon? Sure. And if the spending was wrongheaded, their opponents can use it in the next election.

That said, earmarks can’t work miracles overcoming bad — or unpopular — policy votes. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan won’t be able to buy GOP votes by sprinkling in some favored spending. Obamacare remained deeply unpopular in Nebraska even with the Cornhusker kickback, with Nelson not running for reelection in 2012.  

In Afghanistan, there was good baksheesh. A small gift and offer of tea broke the ice, built trust, and helped get things done. There was a small cost, but it was greatly outweighed by the ability to achieve something much bigger.

Earmarks are far from ideal. But if they help Washington get back to work, maybe they are a price worth paying.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.