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Tariff waivers are cash cows for Hill leaders

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Politics,Congress,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Jennifer Peebles,Campaign Finance

Congressional leaders and campaign committees have raked in nearly $2.3 million in contributions since 2009 from companies seeking tariff waivers on products they import, according to an analysis by The Washington Examiner.

Ten House and Senate leaders, including the chairmen of two congressional panels that approve the waivers known as Miscellaneous Tariff Bills, together got more than $1 million of the total.

Five party organizations set up to get their partisans elected to Congress split another $1.2 million.

Companies seeking MTBs tend to be powerful players in Washington, with big budgets for campaign donations and lobbying.

Twenty-three firms seeking at least 10 MTBs this year contributed about $24.5 million to federal campaigns since 2009.

There are 58 companies with 10 or more MTBs, 41 of which spent a combined $279 million on federal lobbying for all issues, including MTBs, over the past four years.

More than 2,000 proposed MTBs were introduced this year -- mostly for chemical products -- imported by at least 240 companies. The value of each three-year-waiver is capped by law at $500,000 per year.

Critics say MTBs may replace earmarking as an influence-peddling tool, since an individual congressman must introduce the measures, even if the product meets the legal requirement that there be no competing domestic manufacturer.

"I wouldn't blame the money. I would blame the nature of the process," said Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., who believes MTBs violate the earmark moratorium approved by both parties in the wake of the Bridge to Nowhere scandal. "My concern is that we in Congress end up being able to choose winners and losers."

The large sums of money flowing to leadership result from the current process, said Schweikert, who supports tariff waivers but wants to drop the congressional sponsorship requirement.

"Ultimately if this is about moving legislation, leadership controls those levers," he said.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio collected the most MTB-connected cash -- $234,500 in contributions for his re-election and political action committee -- according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Examiner analysis began with 2009 so it would cover a full congressional term and election cycle. Only firms with 10 or more pending MTBs were included to prevent skewing the results via big-spending corporations with multiple issues before Congress, but only a few MTBs.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., ranked second, receiving $203,500. Among Democrats, the top recipient was House Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., with $129,000. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California collected $47,000.

In the Senate, Republican leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona raised a combined $130,000 for themselves and their PACs. The top Democrats, Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois, together collected $94,500.

Also raking in six-figure sums from the companies are the chairmen of the two key committees. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., received $151,000, while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., raised $100,250.

Camp spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart said the MTB process helps local importers.

"Chairman Camp is using this process solely to support U.S. jobs and make the products U.S. manufacturers create more globally competitive," Swinehart said.

Baucus declined to comment.

A bipartisan reform bill has been introduced in the Senate, co-sponsored by Republican leaders and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, to allow companies seeking tariff waivers to apply directly to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

But that approach would create a less transparent process by forcing companies to hire lobbyists to work the ITC, Swinehart said.

"We'd end up with the same lobbying, but less transparency," she said.

Related Stories:

Portman unveils another MTB reform

Hill panels frustrate MTB transparency

Is 'MTB' the new name for earmarks?

process favors big corporations

Bipartisan duo pushes MTB reform

Mark Flatten is a member of the Examiner's special reporting team. Jennifer Peebles is the newspaper's data editor.

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Author:

Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner
Author:

Jennifer Peebles

Digital Editor
The Washington Examiner