Anybody who has ever played Whac-a-Mole is likely to recognize the current congressional debate over whether to reform its arcane process on miscellaneous tariff bills. MTBs are the new earmarks. They reduce or waive U.S. levies on products that must be imported by U.S. firms, usually for three years. The key facts on MTBs -- which until recently hardly anybody outside of Congress knew about -- are that they must be introduced by individual congressmen and no single MTB can reduce federal revenues more than $500,000 per year. Thus, companies seeking MTBs must come, hat in hand, every three years to persuade a senator or representative to introduce a bill.
MTBs create an obvious opportunity for campaign finance mischief and influence-peddling. As Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said last week, "There is a lot of political fundraising wrapped up in this ugly stew. If we allow this process to continue, then we really have allowed the earmark process to continue." She has joined with Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in an effort to reform the MTB process by letting companies go directly to the U.S. International Trade Commission for MTBs, subject only to a congressional veto.
McCaskill -- a first-term Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign in an increasingly conservative state -- correctly points to the parallels between MTBs and earmarks. Thanks to public outrage occasioned by the Bridge to Nowhere and similar pork-barrel abuses, Congress stopped using earmarks. But cloakroom pressure from long-serving members on both sides of the aisle has been building ever since, either to loosen the prohibition or repeal it outright. The more recently elected members, especially those in the Tea Party class of 2010, favor keeping the ban and including MTBs in its coverage. Business-as-usual graybeards like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., whose tax-writing committees approve and reject MTB requests, strenuously deny that they are earmarks.
Baucus and Camp face a tough sell on the issue, thanks largely to the recent work of Mark Flatten and Jennifer Peebles of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. They found that there were 480 MTBs in the 111th Congress, which allowed earmarks, but more than 1,500 tariff waivers proposed in the 112th Congress, which banned earmarks. Flatten and Peebles also found that congressmen who sponsor MTBs get loads of campaign cash from companies, which also spend millions lobbying for tariff waivers. And it's not just individual congressmen who reap MTB rewards. Flatten and Peebles determined, for example, that Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., sponsored four MTBs for Honeywell, which contributed $36,000 to him in the past four years and gave $45,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he chairs.
Too many in Congress still don't understand that the public is fed up with professional politicians in both parties who use the opportunities and perks of elected office to enrich themselves and their friends, while fattening their re-election campaign treasuries. That's why it's right to whack MTBs now just as it was right to whack earmarks in late 2010.