Trade bill raises fight over earmarks for GOP

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) plans to move forward with controversial legislation suspending duties on imports despite concerns it violates the House’s self-imposed earmark moratorium. 

Camp has invited colleagues to submit tariff bills by April 30 for consideration in the miscellaneous tariff measure. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has organized a parallel process in the Senate.

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Lawmakers typically offer the duty suspensions based on recommendations from companies in their districts. The trade bill is supposed to be non-controversial, as duty suspensions are reviewed by a trade commission and only given to imports not produced in the United States. 

The problem is that under House rules, the suspension of a tariff qualifies as an earmark if it benefits 10 or fewer entities. That creates a difficult election-year vote, particularly for Republican lawmakers in the class of 2010 who promised to reform Congress. While the duty suspensions don’t increase spending, they do take away revenue from the government by eliminating tariffs.

“Anyone who requests a duty suspension is violating the earmark ban, violating their pledge not to seek earmarks and could be hit as hypocrites by challengers in the fall election,” said a GOP aide. “Limited duty suspensions have been part of the earmark definition for the last five years.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who voted for the last miscellaneous tariff bill in 2010, said the House should not pass the package of special tariff measures if it violates the earmark ban adopted by the House last year. 

“If they violate the rules, I wouldn’t do them,” he said.

Camp’s office disputes the notion that the tariff provisions are earmarks, and argued the bill broadly benefits consumers.

“The miscellaneous tariff bill has long been a bipartisan effort that helps both American manufacturers and consumers obtain lower-cost access to products that aren’t made in the United States,” said Sarah Swinehart.

“The process used to assemble this legislation is a model in transparency and accountability,” she added. “The bills that are included reduce taxes on importers and are broadly available to anyone who imports the product, even if only a few can be identified today. As such, they are not earmarks.”

But some GOP lawmakers and outside experts say the duty suspensions are earmarks under a House rule that lumps them in with spending measures and tax relief that benefit specific projects. 

Because companies hire lobbyists to persuade members of Congress to introduce them, miscellaneous tariff provisions are very similar to earmarks and limited tax breaks, according to critics. Just as with earmarks, lobbyists and constituents pursuing them often give campaign contributions to the lawmakers they want to persuade.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks congressional spending, said limited tariff relief measures fall in the category of earmarks.

“They’re defined as an earmark in the House rules,” he said.

But Ellis thinks enacting limited tariff relief raises fewer concerns about corruption than spending earmarks. 

“It’s a tricky issue and it always has been,” he said of tariff relief measures. “They’re done a lot differently than earmarks were.”

Critics are skeptical of Camp’s argument that benefits provided by miscellaneous tariff bills are broadly available. They note that U.S. International Trade Commission reports show lawmakers usually propose temporary duty reductions at the request of only one company — usually in their own state.

Tariff provisions have come under scrutiny because they can provide lucrative work for lobbyists. Some companies are willing to shower lawmakers with campaign cash hoping to increase the possibility of getting their special measure passed.

Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have introduced legislation to reform the process for duty suspensions. The bill would empower the trade commission to consider and vet requests for tariff relief and transmit to Congress draft legislation, giving companies less incentive to lobby lawmakers.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of earmarks, said the process of granting tariff relief should be reformed.

“We need fundamental reform that deals with all of this so we don’t have to keep extending this,” he said.

  Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said limited tariff benefits fall under the category of earmarks in House rules but argued that should be changed.

“They wrote it in a way that caught the miscellaneous tariff bill. It’s the most transparent process that anybody can see,” said Levin. “I hope it’s being resolved. It’s not an earmark.”

A report released by Citizens Against Government Waste found that lawmakers have begun to circumvent the earmark moratorium.

“The bad news is that the moratorium on earmarks has been breached by Congress,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.

The report found that lawmakers have begun to intervene with federal agencies to direct how funds are spent.

“There are numerous opportunities for members of Congress to contact federal agencies after the fact and request that money to be directed to a district or state for the programs that have received mini-‘slush funds,’ despite the requirement that the money be spent competitively,” the group said.