Weekly Column: Bills May Be Miscellaneous, But Their Effects Aren't Anonymous

December 14, 2012 | Column
When I was Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the previous Administration, I worked hard to put all Congressional earmarks online for the very first time. This meant that taxpayers and the media could see which organization or individual had requested “earmarked” federal spending, how much, and how these taxpayer dollars were being used. My belief was that the American people deserved to see how their hard-earned dollars were being spent; sure enough, the sunshine of online accountability brought wasteful spending to light, and there were fewer earmarks because of it.

A few years later when I was elected to the U.S. Senate I supported the next step, which is a ban on earmarks. Such a ban is now in place in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

It is vital that Congress not backslide on this ban, but experience unfortunately suggests that Congress might renege. Congress has already broken one promise to curtail spending: it approved two pieces of legislation -- the transportation bill and postal reform -- that violate the budget caps it agreed to just last year.  

And there is another looming threat to the earmark ban:  Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTBs). An MTB reduces or eliminates a tariff on a certain imported product because it is not known to be manufactured in the United States. One example is specialty chemicals that just aren’t produced in America.

Eliminating these tariffs, which are essentially tax increases, helps American firms that use these imported products increase their competitiveness relative to foreign firms. This lowers costs for Americans, helping to create and sustain jobs, and I support the practice.

However, the problem is that individual members of the House or Senate introduce these specific requests without knowing for sure whether eliminating the tariff on an import might hurt a U.S. company that produces the same thing.

With any other kind of legislation, members of Congress generally get expert advice before they introduce bills. With the current MTB process, they get it only after. It is only after the individual MTB has been introduced that our federal trade agencies are asked to review the request and see if there are U.S. businesses being harmed. This is one reason the current earmark ban in the U.S. Senate applies to MTBs.

As an example, my office was recently contacted by two Ohio companies that found themselves threatened. In this case, members of Congress from other states had introduced MTBs that would have hurt the Ohio-produced products. This created the appearance of earmark-like favoritism, even if my colleagues didn’t know that our Ohio companies were producing the products in question.

As a result of concerns such as these, I’ve teamed up with Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to introduce a bill that reforms the MTB process. Otherwise, given our earmark rules, there is no chance we’ll see MTBs this year.

Our legislation allows any member of the public to propose an MTB to the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), the bipartisan federal body that regulates foreign trade, taking away the need for lobbyists. Members of Congress will still be able to submit MTBs if they would like, but they won’t receive preferential treatment.  

To protect American manufacturers, our bill puts in place a public comment period as the duty suspensions are being studied by the ITC. This change is crucial. The ITC will thoroughly investigate what is currently being produced, using those findings to put together draft MTBs that it will then send to Congress for action. The ITC has the expertise to do the necessary vetting of domestic production before the legislative process starts, not after a bill has begun moving in Congress.

I believe this is a win-win scenario. Congress will retain its constitutional jurisdiction over our country’s tariffs, and Americans will have confidence that merit was the only factor at work in the process, and that American jobs were not put at risk along the way.

It’s vital that we reform the MTB process now to comply with the earmark ban. By fully vetting tariff suspensions, we’ll keep favoritism at bay and help U.S. companies and workers be more competitive.