Watchdogs Want More Tariff Details

Posted October 6, 2009 at 6:06pm

Despite new disclosure rules that require more specifics from lobbyists who are pushing for tariff measures, watchdog groups complain that it is still too hard for the public to determine which companies are seeking these lucrative trade breaks.

The Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House recently announced changes to the Lobbying Disclosure Act that will require companies or firms to list tariffs rather than more general tax or trade categories when filling out the quarterly disclosure forms.

The increased transparency comes as a key Congressional committee gears up to consider a miscellaneous tariff suspension measure that would provide relief to certain industries that import products into the United States.

But critics say that even with the increased reporting, it will still be challenging for those not schooled in the nuances of legislative language to easily identify the industries that will benefit from tariff legislation.

Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, said lawmakers still should be required to include in the legislation more specifics about who the beneficiaries are.

“You are not going to have a simple chart with the name of the sponsor, the beneficiary and whether or not the beneficiary lobbied. You are still going to have to go to two or three places to gather all that information,— he said.

Members must also include the companies in requests they submit to the Senate Finance or House Ways and Means committees. However, those requests are not made public until after the committee approves the legislation.

Allison said the International Trade Commission does at some point list the companies that receive the tariff breaks and the cost to the U.S. Treasury. But Allison said that document often does not come out until the measure is far along in the legislative process. He likened the secretive nature of the tariff bills to the way earmarks have been slipped into appropriations bills, often with little identification.

A 2008 Sunlight Foundation analysis estimated that 116 Members of the House introduced more than 800 bills to cut $1.1 billion in taxes on imported goods from at least 120 companies. The tariff measure did not go anywhere in 2008, a casualty of the presidential election year. But there is growing pressure on Congress to act this year as a number of tariff suspensions are set to expire.

The Finance Committee is getting ready to consider a miscellaneous tariff bill this fall. But Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had insisted on more transparency of the companies seeking tariff reductions, before the panel moved ahead with the legislation.

“It provides an accessible database for the public to learn about individual miscellaneous tariff bills that are being lobbied on as we go forward,— Grassley said in a statement, praising the new disclosure rules.

Greg Mastel, a lobbyist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who represents eight companies seeking tariff relief, said many large companies and lobbying firms were not opposed to the increased disclosure rules.

“Smaller consulting firms not based in Washington may have more trouble,— said Mastel, who represents the Tariff Action Coalition, which includes firms such as Dow AgroSciences and Honeywell International.

Mastel also said it would be impossible to list all the companies that benefit from tariff suspensions. He said that although one company may request a tariff suspension, it cannot prevent another company from taking advantage of the break once the bill is approved.

“It is just hard to know who will benefit from it,— Mastel said. “The problem with having a large freewheeling economy is it is hard to pinpoint information like that.—

Mastel said now that Congress has resolved the disclosure issue, companies like the ones he represents are eager to move ahead with the tariff suspension measure. He said that such reductions will boost the economy and “save tens of thousands of jobs.—

A report issued this summer by Capital Trade Inc., a Washington, D.C., firm that specializes in international pricing analysis, concluded that a miscellaneous tariff suspension bill would support 90,000 jobs and increase U.S. manufacturing production by $4.6 billion.