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Sessions Wants a Fix but Says It’s No Earmark

Provision Would Aid Alabama Sleeping-Bag Maker

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Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Jeff Sessions says he is trying to repair a loophole in federal tariff law that allows Bangladeshi sleeping bag manufacturers to undersell U.S. companies.

While Republicans mounted a chorus of opposition to earmarks in spending bills this week, Sen. Jeff Sessions has been quietly blocking a routine tax measure to demand the addition of what is basically an earmark: a new tariff that would benefit a single small business in his state.

The fight over Sessions’ demand for tariffs on sleeping bags from Bangladesh highlights the unintended consequences of the GOP’s newfound hawkishness against earmarks.

Although Sessions has sought earmarks before, over the past year he has fallen in line with Republican leaders who, spurred on by the tea party’s furor over the deficit, have sought to make ending earmarks a central part of their talking points on fiscal austerity.

While fellow Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby voted against an effort on the Senate floor earlier this month to ban all earmarks, Sessions backed the proposal, as well as the GOP Conference’s unilateral vote to abstain from earmarks next year.

But the Sessions case shows that banning earmarks could limit the help Republicans can provide to small businesses trying to recover from the recession.

Sessions is arguing for a tariff on Bangladeshi sleeping bags to benefit an Alabama company called Exxel Outdoors, which claims to be the only U.S. manufacturer of  discount sleeping bags.

CEO Harry Kazazian told Roll Call the tariffs are needed to close a loophole in the Generalized System of Preferences, which allow for duty-free import of certain products from developing nations.

Enacted during President George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the law applies to goods that would not provide direct competition to domestic manufacturers and was designed to help the economic growth of developing nations.

Since it was passed, the legislation has largely gone unnoticed. Aides in both parties said it has typically been renewed through unanimous consent agreements and has become one of the background bills agreed to during evening wrap-ups in the Senate.

But over the past year, Exxel has found its business threatened by the GSP, as companies have begun importing inexpensive sleeping bags from Bangladesh essentially duty-free.

Kazazian said Wednesday that could spell the end for his Haleyville, Ala., company. 

“I spend more on health care in one month than they spend all year on labor,” he said, explaining that while he doesn’t want to shut down his facility, he may have to.

“We try not to think about that ... [but] ultimately, I can’t keep a plant open that’s losing money,” Kazazian said.

Exxel previously shut down manufacturing facilities in China in order to keep its Haleyville plant open, but if the GSP earmark is not passed, Kazazian may be forced to move his operations back to China.

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