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House freshmen: New members find new earmarks?

by
L-R:Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.; Tom Reed, R-N.Y.; Robert Dold, R-Ill.; Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

More than two dozen first-term House members, part of an enormous freshman class swept into office on an anti-incumbent tide of disgust over Washington insider dealing, have introduced a combined 263 bills designed to benefit the bottom lines of hometown corporations.

An analysis of campaign finance records by the Sunlight Foundation shows that some of the corporations that stand to save money from bills aimed at temporarily suspending tariffs on products that the firms import are also campaign contributors to the members of Congress introducing bills on their behalf. It's the latest in Sunlight's ongoing examination of the House freshmen class.

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The freshmen who introduced the tariff suspensions are participating in a venerable Capitol Hill tradition, and one that has become more popular with lawmakers as earmarks—the way members of Congress traditionally bestowed federal largesse on home districts—have become politically radioactive. The House banned earmarks at the beginning of this Congress in response to the public anger over insider dealing that led to the ouster of 58 incumbent lawmakers in 2010.

Yet earlier this year, 166 lawmakers—134 members of the House and 32 senators—proposed 1,270 tariff suspensions, which critics have derided as a new form of earmarks. But GOP first termers aggressively defended the practice: 65 freshmen members of the GOP wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, arguing that the tariff suspensions will help boost American manufacturing employment.

Of the House lawmakers vying to have special deals for home state interests wrapped into the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, or MTB, 26 were freshmen—all but two of them Republicans. The GOP freshmen were responsible for 224 tariff suspension bills. The other 39 were introduced by freshmen Democrats Hansen Clarke of Michigan and John Carney Jr. of Delaware. Clarke lost his reelection bid this year in a redistricting matchup that pitted him against more senior Democratic Rep. Gary Peters in the primary.

 

A handful of the freshmen members stand out for introducing numerous bills for just a few companies. Many of them are also recipients of campaign contributions from the companies they are aiding.

  • Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., introduced 37 bills to be included in the MTB on behalf of six companies. One of those companies was Invista, a special materials manufacturer and a subsidiary of Koch Industries. So far this campaign cycle, the Koch Industries political action committee has given Mulvaney $5,000 in campaign contributions. During the 2010 election cycle Mulvaney also received $5,000 from the Koch Industries PAC.
  • Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., introduced 21 tariff suspension bills and cosponsored four more. The bills for which he was the primary sponsor benefit seven corporations, including Nucor, Corning Inc., and Philips Electronics. Those three companies have all made campaign contributions to Reed at some point during the last four years. The Center for Responsive Politics lists Corning as Reed’s top career contributor, and he is continuing to benefit from the company's largesse as he approaches his first bid for reelection. Sunlight's Influence Explorer shows that Rep. Reed received $28,700 so far this cycle from employees of Corning Inc. and its political action committee. During the 2010 election cycle, and when he began his bid for his current seat, he received a combined $32,950.
  • Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., introduced 19 bills to benefit three companies: Valent, Dow Chemical and Astellas Pharma. Between the current election cycle and the 2010 election cycle, Dold received $4,000 in contributions from the Dow Chemical political action committee. Astellas PAC has given Dold money $5,000 over the last two election cycles.
  • Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., introduced 26 bills to benefit two companies: Philips Electronics and Collective Brands. So far this cycle, Huelskamp has received $2,410 from the Philips PAC in campaign contributions and in-kind contributions.

Two other freshman Republicans stand out as particularly eager sponsors of tariff suspension legislation:  Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., who introduced 15 bills and cosponsored 38 more and Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who introduced 28 bills. But the available campaign data didn't show contributions to them by any of the companies benefitting from the legislation. 

The freshmen involvement in tariff suspensions is notable because some critics—including some conservatives—have blasted as a new form of earmarking—exactly the sort of activity many of the first-termers have vowed to avoid. "It is our responsibility and our privilege to serve our constituents — not special interests, and certainly not personal interests,” Mulvaney told a home state newspaper last November.

Recently, 50 freshmen members of  the GOP wrote another letter to Speaker Boehner that said they wanted the tax code reformed to eliminate loopholes for special interests. 

Rep. Reed has said that he doesn't think the MTB serves special interests at all. 

The Miscellaneous Tariff Bill process is designed so that companies have to ask members of Congress to introduce legislation affecting certain products, thus opening the door to the idea that the bill will breed special favors.

After a member introduces a bill, it then goes on to be evaluated and scored by the International Trade Commission (ITC) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The ITC will determine whether or not the product meets the criteria to qualify for being included in the MTB, such as the product is not also manufactured in the United States and it is a raw good to be used in downstream manufacturing. Some common products included are chemicals such as dyes, and products used to make plastics and other special materials.

The CBO determines how much money the Department of Treasury will lose in revenue due to the tariff suspensions. The bill that passed in 2010 temporarily lifted tariffs on 665 products. Those tariff suspensions cost the U.S. government $298 million over three years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and John Kyl, R-AZ, have introduced legislation to overhaul the process and stop lawmakers from being required to introduce these bills in order to get tariff suspensions passed. None of the bills have passed.

(Photo credits: U.S. House of Representatives)