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Tariff bill opens the floodgates for lobbyists

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In the three months before congressional leaders announced that they are once again opening the process to suspend tariffs, at least 71 private companies have already lobbied to get their own exemption and nine more have registered. Each one has a product they’d like to import a little more cheaply. So far this year, the companies report lobbying expenditures of $14 million on issues including this one – but if history is any guide, it may be well worth the expense.

The last time Congress passed a miscellaneous tariff bill (MTB), in 2010, it cost taxpayers $298 million in lost revenue over three years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Members have until tonight to send in provisions they want included in this year’s legislation, according to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

In short, the MTB is legislation written for corporations, by corporations to save them money on products they import and use in manufacturing. The companies solicit members of Congress to introduce bills reducing their tariffs and those bills eventually get rolled into the MTB, a long green eyeshade document that few members of Congress likely will take the time to read. Call it “nearmarking.” With earmarks now banned, critics say the tariff bill offers members of Congress an alternate route to get special favors for pet concerns at taxpayer expenses. Republican Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have introduced legislation would send all tariff requests directly to the International Trade Commission (ITC), cutting Congress out of the process.

“There is no good reason why businesses go to members of Congress and not directly to the International Trade Commission with their petitions,” said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton.

But guess who’s pushing the tariff bill? Sixty freshman Republican lawmakers –who generally have been among the loudest voices against special dealing and for deficit reduction -- recently wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., urging favorable treatment of the MTB. They argued that it’s a bill that will spur American jobs.

Lobbying

Congress considers tariff legislation almost every two years. And while heavy corporate lobbying on it is typical, it's hard to compare historic spending trends because lobbying records weren't digitized until 2008 and congressional lobbying records didn't begin tracking lobbying specifically on the miscellaneous tariff bill until the last few years.

Lobbying disclosure information reported to the Senate Office of Public Records.

But the number of tariff suspensions enacted by Congress appears to be on the upswing. In 2004, Congress passed an MTB with 433 tariff suspensions. Two years later, the MTB that passed two years later suspended duties on 280 products and generated a tariff savings of about $660 million for corporations according to a study conducted by Capital Trade, Incorporated, an economic consulting firm that focuses on international trade. But later that year, Congress approved a second bill suspending duties on another 580 products. During the 111th Congress, which ran from 2009 through 2010, lobbying records on file with the Senate show 192 companies with $385 million in lobbying expenses on tariff issues. Of that amount, $205 million was spent in the final six months before passage of H.R. 4380, the United States Manufacturing Enhancement Act of 2010. The bill included duty suspensions on 665 products, benefiting 113 corporations, according to data provided by the House Ways and Means committee.

An examination of the 2010 bill and lobbying records related to the MTB provides vivid examples of how members of Congress use the tariff legislation to do favors for home-state businesses.

Bayer

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., submitted 28 requests to suspend duties on products for Bayer. All but three made it into law. Overall, Bayer got a remarkable 62 duty suspensions from 15 members of Congress, making the German drug manufacturer the top beneficiary of the bill. Mary Petrovic, Rep. Cleaver's press secretary, defended the support, noting that Bayer employs a number of people in his home district in Missouri.

Bayer and its subsidiaries spent $8.3 million lobbying the bill and other issues in 2009 and 2010 according to records disclosed with the Senate. The corporation has reported spending $7.2 lobbying the issue and others this session so far.

Cleaver also received $5,500 in campaign contributions from employees of Bayer and their family members during the 2007-2008 and the 2009-2010 election cycles. So far this cycle he’s received $2,000 from people associated with Bayer, according to InfluenceExplorer.com.

Michelin

An examination of lobbying records disclosed in 2010 showed that the tire manufacturer Michelin lobbied on 21 bills introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to reimburse duties they paid on tire products. Michelin, which operates a number of plants in Graham’s state, reported spending at least $1.1 million on issues including tariffs and was the only company that reported lobbying on the 21 original bills dealing with tariff reimbursements that Graham introduced. The provisions Michelin wanted made it into the final bill.

Tracking which corporations benefit from provisions that originated on the Senate side is harder than the House side, because the Senate traditionally has not revealed which members requested each provision. It’s not clear whether the Senate will adopt the House transparency process this time around. That potentially could shed more light on relationships between senators and the corporations they help through this bill.

Dan Ikenson, an expert in trade issues at the Cato Institute, favors reducing all tariffs unilaterally. But he called the MTB a good thing even though it only temporarily suspends duties on a limited number of products. He described the measure as “gradual progress” towards creating more competition in the markets.

Ikenson, however, doesn’t agree with all of the rules that go into writing the MTB. Only allowing import products to be considered if they are not produced in the United States is bad for competition., he said. Magnesium, for instance, is only produced by one company in the United States and therefore has little incentive to make prices competitive, Ikenson said. He argued that lifting duties on imported magnesium would allow U.S. manufacturers to get better prices.

“We’re picking winners and losers in our markets by placing duties on certain items,” Ikenson said.