An internecine debate on the future of the current earmark moratorium is heating up in the Senate and House GOP conferences, and in the process an obscure legislative tool is slowly coming out of the shadows as a potential alternative to "Bridge to Nowhere" spending measures.
Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTBs) are provisions written by House and Senate members to suspend temporarily U.S. trade duties on specific products. The suspensions usually are for periods of three to five years, but there is no bar to longer suspensions being enacted.
Hardly anybody in the media paid attention last week when the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee invited senators and representatives to submit their MTB requests no later than Monday, April 30 tp be included in the 111th Congress' MTB legislation.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Rep. Dave Camp, R-MI, is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Legislative aides on the Senate side are meeting today at 3:30 with finance committee staff members to discuss the process. The rules currently require that MTBs not exceed $500,000 in value and that they be "con-controversial."
After the congressional committees go through the MTB requests, they will send them over to the International Trade Commission, which will review the technical details required for each to become law.
If that all sounds all technical and boring, that's part of the reason why there are growing concerns about the potential of MTBs to become earmarks in everything but name. An examination of the MTBs from the 110th Congress suggests there are concrete reasons for those concerns.
The first MTB on the 110th list was submitted by Rep. Marion Berry, D-AK, "to suspend temporarily the duty on certain flat panel displays." Also among them was New York Democrat Rep, Carolyn Maloney's to "suspend temporarily the duty on stick and golf umbrellas. Then there was Rep. Brian Brilbray, R-CA, who wanted "to suspend temporarily the duty on certain golf club components."
These MTBs were notable for being somewhat understandable, compared to the vast majority of requests, which covered what appear to be specific chemicals used in the production of unnamed products. Typical of the latter was Louisiana Republican Rep. Jim Mcrery's request for a suspension of the duty on "2-Acetylnicotinic."
Then there are some MTBs on the list of those approved by the 110th Congress that were so vague as to be indecipherable. Former Pennsylvania Republidan Rep. Phil English, for example, had three MTBs requesting suspension of duties "on a certain chemical."
When I emailed English requesting information about those MTBs, he declined to do so.
But the specifics of MTBs and where they now stand may be less important that what old guard Republicans see in them as potential substitutes for earmarks. It's no secret that many of the old GOP bulls are angry about the earmark moratorum and eager to loosen its impact or end it entirely.
Both the Senate and House GOP conferences are expected to discuss MTBs in their meetings this week. Might be worth keeping an eye on what happens to MTBs after those conferences.
For details on the MTB process and to review the 110th Congress MTBs, go here on the U.S. Trade Representative's web site. The House Ways and Means Committee MTB announcement for the current Congress is here. The Senate Finance Committee's announcement is here.