Watchdog groups say congressional leaders bragging about having the most transparent disclosure process for tariff bills are actually making it hard to find out who benefits from the measures.
House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee officials last week released lists of bills sponsored by members of Congress – known as “Miscellaneous Tariff Bills” (MTB) – that waive or substantially reduce tariff duties on certain imported goods. See below for the lists.
Every MTB involves a primary beneficiary, usually a private company that imports the product to be exempted from U.S. tariffs to use either in making another product or reselling it.
The problem is both the House and Senate lists tuck the beneficiary companies in a hard-to-find area of the list and does so using PDFs, which must be opened individually.
The PDFs also make computer searches of the lists all but impossible.
The process slows down watchdogs who want to know which companies are beneficiaries and whether any quid pro quos such as campaign contributions are involved in a particular MTB.
A decade ago, so few MTBs were introduced that only congressional insiders were aware of the process. But more than 2,000 MTB proposals were introduced this year, heightening growing concerns that the measures are becoming substitutes for the earmarks that were eliminated by a congressional moratorium in 2011.
Posting beneficiaries in an accessible and searchable format is critical, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan group that tracks federal spending.
“If it’s not understandable and manageable, then it’s not really that transparent at all,” Ellis said. “Just slapping information up on the Internet doesn’t make people understand the process or the implications of the process that much better.”
Media spokesmen for the two panels mostly declined to discuss the disclosure lists, referring a reporter to news releases and related statements by the committee chairmen, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Dave Camp, R-MI.
Sarah Swinehart, spokeswoman for the House committee, said in an email that “there isn’t a process in town that comes close to the scrutiny MTBs receive. There is absolutely no hiding.”
In the Senate Finance Committee news release, Baucus said “the process to submit requests is wide-open and transparent with all the information available online for anyone to see.”
To get a tariff suspension, companies must convince a member of Congress to sponsor legislation waiving the normal import duties. Those bills are forwarded to the Ways and Means Committee in the House, the Finance Committee in the Senate.
Critics contend the tariff bills have replaced earmarks as the favored means for members of Congress to dole out favors to special interests that spend heavily on lobbyists and campaign contributions.
Included in an earmark ban adopted last year is a prohibition on tariff bills that benefit 10 or fewer companies, a restriction that is easily avoided since the products can be imported by anyone, not just the entity seeking the tariff waiver. A sampling of disclosure forms in the 2012 bills shows virtually all of them list a single beneficiary.
The main complaint about the MTBs is they create a mechanism for special interests to influence Congress through lobbying and campaign contributions, so it is especially important that the beneficiaries of the bills be easily identified, said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes greater transparency in government.
Some companies may only have a bill or two filed on their behalf. Others are likely to have dozens. That is what happened in 2010, the last time the tariff waivers were passed.
One company alone, the pharmaceutical giant Bayer and its subsidiaries, received 62 duty suspensions from 15 members of Congress in the 2010 bill, according to a Sunlight analysis.
The only way to determine if a company will benefit from multiple bills filed by different members of Congress is to open each of the 2,063 PDF documents individually.
“These are bills that generally speaking will only benefit one or a few companies, so when somebody gets a private bill like that it’s very important for the public to be able to determine who’s getting it and how they are getting it,” Allison said.
“Not having it in a downloadable, searchable, sortable format really limits the usefulness of the data. It would have been easy for them to make it exceedingly easy to use this data and instead they really dropped the ball.”
Senators Jim DeMint, R-SC, and Claire McCaskill, D-MO, have introduced MTB reform legislation that would let companies submit proposals to the International Trade Commission (ITC) instead of having to persuade a senator or representative to do it for them in a bill.
Mark Flatten is a member of the Examiner's special reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Examiner data editor Jennifer Peebles contributed to this post. She can be reached at email@example.com.
For additional information and reporting on the MTB issue, see Flatten's recent three-post series:
Part I - Is 'MTB' the new name for earmarks?
Part II - MTB process favors big corporations
Part III - Bipartisan Senate duo seeks MTB reform