A new bill to curtail congressional influence in the granting of tariff waivers should break the stalemate between Senate Republicans who want to pass the exemptions this year and those who view them as earmarks that fall under the congressional ban, its sponsor said today.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said his bill has the backing of Senate Republican leaders and some Democrats who want to reform the system for approving the tariff relief measures without jeopardizing the proposals that must be passed this year.
Portman’s plan would let companies and individuals directly petition the International Trade Commission (ITC) for the break instead of having to get a congressman to introduce a bill. The commission would also have the power to identify imported goods that qualify for tariff waivers.
“It really cleans up a lobbyist-driven process and puts forward a process that gives businesses more certainty, and does not require businesses to come to Congress,” Portman said in a telephone conference call with interested reporters.
“It’s a transparent, merit-based process doing away with the earmark concern that many members have. And finally it cuts taxes and cuts unnecessary tariffs to help grow the economy,” he said.
Portman’s proposal is similar to a bill already introduced by Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., which would eliminate the requirement that a member of Congress sponsor a bill to get a tariff waiver considered by the ITC.
Critics of Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTBs) say the current system favors big companies that hire lobbyists and make campaign donations. The MTBs waive or substantially lower the import duties on products made overseas that do not compete with American-made goods.
The earmark ban prohibits tariff bills that benefit 10 or fewer companies. Virtually all of the more than 2,000 MTBs introduced this year benefit a single entity, typically a domestic chemical or drug manufacturer that uses the compound to make other products, according to disclosure reports.
With most previously passed tariff exemptions are set to expire at the end of the year, there is pressure in Congress to renew them. Otherwise, the domestic importers will face what amounts to a massive tax hike when import duties go up to normal levels, Portman said.
Divisions over whether MTBs violate the earmark ban have made Republican senators reluctant to introduce them. Only two Republican senators introduced MTBs this year, Susan Collins of Maine and James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Collins’ bills exempt duties on chemicals used by FMC Corp., which has facilities in her state. Inhofe’s bill exempts certain fishing reels imported by several sporting goods companies. Calls for comment to both Collins and Inhofe were not returned.
In the House, 74 Republicans introduced more than 700 MTBs.
Whether Portman’s bill will break the logjam in the Senate is unclear. He said during a telephone conference call that he worked closely with Senate Republican leaders and critics of the MTB process, as well as McCaskill.
But he did not characterize how enthusiastically they would be supporting his bill or whether he is likely to get significant help from Democrats who control the majority in the Senate.
DeMint said in a statement released earlier today that he supports Portman’s efforts.
“It is a critical step forward for earmark reform that will break down unnecessary barriers to small businesses seeking tariff relief,” said DeMint, who favors the tariff waivers but not the process for granting them.
“I hope the Senate works together and acts on this reform quickly, so that American businesses will no longer have to hire a lobbyist and come grovel before a member of Congress to get relief necessary to save jobs and keep costs down on consumers.”
McCaskill’s spokesman, Drew Pusateri, said 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.
A spokesman for Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., identified by Portman as being involved in the reform discussion, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Mark Flatten is a member of the Examiner's special reporting team.