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Roll Call

Portman’s Tariffs Push Runs Into Static

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Rob Portman is co-sponsoring a bill to reform the application of tariffs, but the legislation has run into snags and confusion along the way.

Last Wednesday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced a conference call with an ostensibly simple purpose: He and a group of Senate colleagues were introducing the Temporary Duty Suspension Process Act, a bill to reform the process of enacting targeted duty suspensions.

What followed shows how complicated politics can be, even for a veteran such as Portman, who cut his teeth heading up the Office of Legislative Affairs under President George H.W. Bush before winning a House seat in Ohio and then going on to be U.S. trade representative and head of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

For example, one office that did not receive a heads up about the conference call was that of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.).

Apparently caught off guard, McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri awkwardly told a reporter for the Washington Examiner “he could not comment specifically on Portman’s bill, but that she has been working with other Senators to develop bipartisan legislation to reform the process.”

And after Roll Call’s initial story on the legislation was published Wednesday, Pusateri requested that a quote from McCaskill be added.

The two offices released a joint press release later that evening that said the duo “today joined together and introduced bipartisan legislation.”

The bill Portman and McCaskill introduced would reform the miscellaneous tariff bill in a way they hope does not run afoul of the Congressional ban on earmarks that could ensnare it.

The approach runs contrary to the position of House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who has argued strenuously that no such reforms are necessary to bypass the earmark ban.

That’s especially so because the bill is backed by McCaskill and conservative icon Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and was the product of a working group that included Senate Republican leadership.

Or at least, most of leadership.

On the conference call, Portman said he had worked on the bill with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.).

“We have been working closely together to come up with a reform bill. I want to thank Sen. Kyl, Sen. McConnell, Sen. Blunt, Sen. DeMint, Sen. Thune and others who have worked with me on this,” Portman said.

Later during the call, Portman said, “We started this process to work with all of the leaders on our side of the aisle,” called the resulting product the “consensus bill” and said, “We’re all together at this point.”

After the call, however, Portman’s communications director, Jeff Sadosky, sent an email to clarify that Thune and Blunt are not co-sponsors of the legislation.

Camp’s office was also insisting that Blunt was not a co-sponsor.

Sadosky later said that Portman mentioned Blunt and Thune only as part of the working group that crafted the bill, not as co-sponsors.

Asked about it the next day, a Senate aide said Thune’s signature had perhaps been confused for another Member’s signature and that the South Dakota Republican was not a co-sponsor.

But pressed for details, the source said the signature snafu didn’t actually happen.

“There was miscommunication at the staff level — there was no confusion on the co-sponsor signature list as previously mentioned,” the source said.

A GOP source said Friday that Thune is still reviewing the bill and might sign on.

But Blunt is less likely to join the cause. Being a Republican from McCaskill’s state could provide her with political cover as the GOP targets her for defeat this year.

Spokeswoman Amber Marchand said, “Senator Blunt is working with his colleagues in the House and Senate and looking at all of the options on the table to ensure these tax reductions are passed to help American manufacturers this year.”

A second Senate aide said that despite the awkwardness, there’s no opposition to the bill from Republicans.

“At the end of the day, Senators just want to help businesses avoid needless tariffs without getting caught up in the earmark fight again. They see this reform as avoiding the earmark trap and helping more small businesses getting relief than the old process. Obviously, it’s a sensitive issue because of Camp, but many see this as the only answer to a thorny issue,” the source said.

Adding another wrinkle though, was a House GOP aide who on Friday registered concerns about whether the bill is constitutional.

“Under the McCaskill approach Congress abdicates its specific authority and responsibility under Article 1, Section 8 to levy duties and transfers that authority to an unaccountable agency. The McCaskill bill leaves Congress uninformed about the provisions until the very end and does not allow Congress to control how provisions are considered by the [International Trade Commission],” the source said, leaving out any references to Portman or DeMint’s co-sponsorship.  

“It turns the ITC from investigator for Congress to decision-maker in lieu of Congress. It would likely result in an expansion of the size of government and a less public, open process. It would also make it harder for small businesses and job creators who don’t have experience dealing with complex bureaucracies, but do know their local Member of Congress and Senator,” the source said.

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