Some in Congress say the process for deciding who gets lucrative tariff breaks on imported items like basketballs, eyelash curlers and chemicals with tongue-twisting names is “completely open and transparent.”
A committee chairman even called it “the most open and transparent process in Congress.”
Yeah, right. The process by which Congress doles out tariff breaks is about as clear as mud to the average citizen.
Up to now, Joe Citizen could look at the House Ways and Means Committee’s web page on these Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTBs), as they’re called, and find each bill number, a description of the item, and the bill sponsor’s name.
To learn what company wants the tariff exemption on that item, he must click a link to see a PDF of a disclosure form that’s often handwritten.
But that doesn’t tell you much when you are trying to figure out what companies stand to benefit the most, or how much influence they wield over Congress. Chemical giant Bayer, for instance, wants exemptions or reductions on more than 100 products this year, each one of which can be worth up to $500,000 a year.
With most of these MTBs being sought for three years, that’s a maximum of $1.5 million lost to the U.S Treasury on each item.
In 2010, the last time Congress passed MTBs, the same information was made available online, plus the name of the beneficiary company, such as Bayer, Dow or Spalding sporting goods. But this year, House leaders weren’t as transparent.
The Washington Examiner is publishing today a spreadsheet showing all 2,000-plus MTBs, identifying each item and the companies that would benefit from each exemption. This is the data file behind our online story and in the print edition today looking at campaign contributions by tariff-seeking firms to congressional leaders. (To download the data for your own analysis, follow the link above and then go to File > Download As.)
Here’s what we had to do to bring real transparency to Congress’ supposedly “completely open and transparent process” on MTBs:
- We scraped all the text and links from the committees’ online MTB matrixes (and, later, scraped the full bill text from GovTrack.us, with GovTrack’s permission) with a web-scraping utility and then put it all into a spreadsheet.
- We batch-downloaded each congressman’s MTB disclosure forms in clumps. Each member’s PDF forms went into a separate folder to be compiled into one PDF.
- Because so many of the forms were filled out in handwriting (note to Congress: Your handwriting is pathetic!), most of them couldn’t be read well by our optical character recognition software. So my reporting colleague here, Mark Flatten, started typing feveri
shly to put every beneficiary firm into the spreadsheet, one bill at a time.
- Even then, that wasn’t enough. For instance, one member of Congress identified the beneficiary firm for a tariff break as “Michel Trawalter.” It took a little Internet sleuthing to find out that he is an official at a chemical plant in South Carolina, and the bill in question would benefit his employer, Clariant.
The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees should post a matrix showing each bill number, a description of the product, the sponsor and the company that will benefit or which is seeking the tariff waiver.
It was done in the House two years ago. There is no reason it cannot be done today if they really want to make this “the most open and transparent process in Congress.”
Here’s how the process could be made more transparent:
- The chairmen of the two committees that vet the MTB bills should require all the disclosure forms to be filled out and submitted electronically in a native PDF format, or by having the data entered by congressional staffs through an Intranet interface into a central repository that can export the data in a spreadsheet-type format. No more handwritten PDFs.
- The disclosure forms/Intranet form should require that sponsors disclose not only the name of the beneficiary company but also a description of what the item in question does and why the firm wants it (“Bayer uses this chemical to make aspirin”). For chemical compounds, many of which have a dozen or more names, sponsors should be required list the Chemical Abstracts Service registry number of the compound. (The CAS number is already in the body text of most of the bills, but forcing it to be included in the disclosure data would prevent anyone from having to scrape congressional data off the web for the numbers like we did.)
- The disclosure forms could even require that the sponsors disclose any campaign contributions to themselves or their PACs that they have received in the last 3 years from PACs or individuals affiliated with that firm, as well as any former staffers of theirs who have lobbied for that firm within the past 3 years.
- The data from the disclosure forms would be pulled into a spreadsheet by committee staff and posted online.
That would be real transparency.
Click this link to see the entire Google spreadsheet larger and to download the data so you can do your own analysis. To download the data, follow the link to the spreadsheet and then go to File > Download As.)