Congressional Republicans are debating whether the GOP conference ban on earmarks and limited tariff relief applies to "miscellaneous tariff bills," or MTBs. These bills reduce or eliminate import duties on certain manufactured goods that can't be bought domestically. In effect, they help American companies compete better in global markets.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp gave members a deadline this week to introduce their bills for these breaks. "As American manufacturers continue to struggle, the MTB process protects job creators from tax increases that would otherwise occur at the end of 2012," the Michigan Republican told The Washington Times. "More than 600 different tax increases and 90,000 jobs hang in the balance, and completing the MTB process gives them the certainty they need to plan."
Under the current system, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) vets each proposed tariff bill to ensure the product is not being made domestically, no business or lawmaker objects, and the revenue loss is less than $500,000 per bill. Congress has to vote on a final compiled package before current rates expire on Dec. 31.
Sen. Jim DeMint believes this arrangement violates the earmark ban on limited tariffs, which is defined as something benefiting 10 or fewer companies. The South Carolina Republican is pushing legislation removing individual members from the application process.
"Right now, small businesses have unnecessary obstacles where they hire lobbyists and beg members of Congress to introduce a specialized bill that then gets sent to the ITC for review," explained Mr. DeMint's spokesman, Wesley Denton. Mr. DeMint made his pitch to the House conservatives' Republican Study Committee, and most members seemed open to the proposal, according to a source in the room.
A group of 65 freshmen, including Tea Party members, defended the existing practice in an April 20 letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner. Tariff breaks aren't earmarks, they wrote, because "the MTB is available to any U.S. Manufacturer - including small businesses" and is "vetted through the most rigorously transparent process undertaken by Congress."
The fatal flaw with earmarks is that they spend taxpayer money on wasteful projects using a process hidden from the public. MTBs aren't about spending money, but reducing Washington's take so that businesses can be more competitive. Unlike the shadowy earmark procedure of the past, MTBs are filed individually and posted online, months in advance. If any domestic manufacturer or lawmaker objects to a proposed tariff reduction, it is automatically taken out of consideration.
The only thing the reduced tariffs have in common with earmarks is that they flow from the same vision of Washington as the favor factory to which businesses turn seeking a benefit. That's far from ideal, but eliminating tariff relief right now would do the economy more harm than good.
In November, voters may very well demand further change in the way Washington operates. If so, next year will be the time to push for tariff and tax reform that applies across the board.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.
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Emily Miller is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times. She won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.
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