By Alexander Bolton - 06/14/12 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is siding with right-leaning lawmakers in the battle over miscellaneous tariff provisions, pressuring House Republicans to reform a process that critics call a magnet for corruption.
The possible vice-presidential contender has teamed up with politically vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to limit the influence of individual legislators in deciding which companies win niche tariff exemptions.
The Portman-McCaskill bill would shift power to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to choose tariff suspensions, which Congress would then approve.
The measure would allow lawmakers to refer petitions for tariff suspensions to the ITC, though those referrals would not carry any special weight.
The legislation is similar to a bill crafted by McCaskill, a GOP target this fall, and Tea Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
DeMint has long battled his fellow Republicans over miscellaneous tariff provisions but has had few allies in the fight. The emergence of Portman, a leading contender to serve as Mitt Romney’s running mate, tips the scales.
Portman said his bill is consistent with Romney’s call for a permanent ban on congressional earmarks but has not discussed the issue with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
The Romney campaign did not respond to a query about where he stands on the tariff issue.
DeMint praised the Portman/McCaskill legislation Wednesday as “a critical step forward for earmark reform that will break down unnecessary barriers to small businesses seeking tariff relief.”
“I hope the Senate works together and acts on this reform quickly, so that American businesses will no longer have to hire a lobbyist and come grovel before a member of Congress to get relief necessary to save jobs and keep costs down on consumers,” he said.
Portman said miscellaneous tariff bills are “a good idea” because they help create jobs, though he has concerns that Congress’s process of awarding tariff exceptions creates the potential for corruption.
Under current law, individual members of Congress must sponsor petitions to lift tariffs on imported products. In many cases, these tariff suspensions are sought by only one company and benefit only the petitioner.
Companies frequently hire lobbyists and spread around campaign contributions to increase their chances of winning a suspension, similar to how companies and municipalities lobbied for earmarks in the past.
“I’m concerned that under the current process that it runs afoul of our Republican conference rules,” Portman said. “Our rules specifically say limited tariff benefits are prohibited from being offered.”
That could put him at odds with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and many House Republican freshmen who dispute that miscellaneous tariff provisions conflict with the Republican moratorium on earmarks.
Sixty-five House Republican freshmen in April wrote a letter defending a miscellaneous tariff bill (MTB) Camp had begun crafting. Senate Finance Committee
Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is working on a companion bill in the upper chamber.
“Unlike spending earmarks, as they are sometimes erroneously characterized, a duty suspension included in the MTB is available to any U.S. manufacturer — including small businesses — importing the covered product because it is not available domestically,” the freshmen wrote.
But the anti-earmark watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense argues the lawmakers’ role in picking winners of tariff suspensions is similar to doling out federal funds for pet projects.
Portman’s proposed reform could slow Camp’s miscellaneous tariff bill, but he said that is not his intention.
“There is a way to ensure the current requests that are in get expedited this year,” he said. “For the future MTBs there would be this immediate referral to the
ITC and the other agencies either directly by the companies, so they wouldn’t have to pay lobbyists to come up here, or members could refer, if they want to, or the ITC could take up MTBs on their own and send them to Congress.”
He and Camp have chatted by phone to discuss a possible path forward. Portman, a former House member, served with Camp on the Ways and Means panel.
“The current MTB process already has strong support among conservatives, 65 House GOP freshmen, and broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate,” said Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for Camp. “Chairman Camp is committed to ensuring that our nation’s job creators are not hit with tax increases at the end of the year.”