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Tariff Bills Muddle Earmark Message

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Mick Mulvaney signed on to a letter to Speaker John Boehner last week asking that he allow miscellaneous tariff bills.

“The whole point is to not earmark something as a benefit to one company,” he said. “There will be months of public review of the new bills to ensure they are written properly and meet all the stringent guidelines.”

But bills deal with generic products and chemicals, not their brand names. The committee was unable to provide an example of how a bill subject to the new scrutiny will look any different from past tariff bills.

Still, Congress’ job is to make the reduced tariff broadly available, said Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, and if only a few companies take advantage, so be it.

“We can’t anticipate who in this $15 trillion economy might take advantage of it,” the Texas Republican said. “An earmark is for a specific town, a specific state, a specific organization. And these are not. These are available, frankly, to anyone who’s importing it or using it.”

The idea is that if taxes on importing these products are low enough, more companies can get into the business, said Rep. Tom Reed, who spearheaded the freshman letter.

“Hopefully, what we’ll see is a blossoming of U.S. manufacturers that will far exceed 10 or more,” the New York Republican said.

But there is no guarantee. Already, outside groups and Senate Republicans are skeptical. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl said they are looking at other approaches because Camp’s approach doesn’t solve anything.

“I don’t see that they’re doing anything,” the Arizona Republican said. “So we’re going to find a different process, I think, whereby these requests can be dealt with in a way that clearly doesn’t violate any Senate rules.”

One such process is laid out in a bill from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), which would take Congress out of the equation and have companies directly lobby the International Trade Commission.

Some House Republicans, though, argue that it is the constitutional duty of Congress to deal with tax measures and that it would be improper to remove Members from the process.

Adding to the problem is that allowing the tariff bills could open a Pandora’s box of appropriators calling for their earmarks to be returned, as well.

House Appropriators Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said he thinks the tariff bills are no different from earmarks. One of his cardinals, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), said that if the tariffs are allowed, there’s no reason earmarks should be banned.

“What my resentment has always been is what’s the difference between this and a well-vetted road project for the transportation bill or a research project on the agriculture bill?” said Kingston, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with agriculture and rural development. “If you can give a tax relief, could you not do the same on a well-vetted expenditure that has broad support?”

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