Another Kind of Earmark


Joe Stephens reports in this morning’s Washington Post on a practice we wondered about a while back: members of Congress who sponsor “temporary duty suspensions” — cuts in the taxes assessed on a specific imported item. (Thomas, the Library of Congress‘s online tool for tracking legislation, lists hundreds of them when you search for the phrase, “temporary suspension of duty.”) Each tariff suspension can cost the Treasury as much as $500,000–that is, it’s a $500,000 tax break targeted to some special interest that asked for the tariff suspension.

Unlike earmarks, members that propose tariff suspensions have to formally sponsor a bill (just by searching Thomas we found, for example, that Sen. John Kerry seemed to favor golf driver heads made of titanium or with plasma welded face plates). But The Post, by looking at analyses of these bills made by the International Trade Commission, was able to identify many of those requesting the breaks:

The practice of not naming companies in the legislation obscures a fact revealed by The Post’s analysis: The biggest beneficiaries of the rising tide of tariff-suspension bills are domestic subsidiaries of foreign corporations. Of the 10 companies that stand to benefit from the greatest number of bills examined in the study, eight are owned by or affiliated with German and Swiss chemical companies.

What’s of most interest to me is just how routine Congress has made the process for asking for these tax breaks:

Traditionally each suspension was introduced as a separate bill. Their popularity leapt 20 years ago when Congress decided to combine most of the unopposed suspension bills into one huge piece of legislation, to be passed quickly and unanimously at the end of each session. Today corporate lobbyists deliver a steady stream of proposed tariff suspensions to congressional aides, who use computer spreadsheets to track the avalanche of paperwork.

The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee review most of the bills in what members say is an attempt to weed out those too costly to the Treasury. Making the tariff suspensions temporary — usually three years — avoids interference with trade negotiations, aides said.

The process has become so standardized that Ways and Means has drawn up a tip sheet for companies to streamline the procedure. One tip says sponsors should “avoid using trade names for products.” Instead, a product “should be described precisely” in the bill. That can help customs officials in the field identify obscure chemicals. But it also can mask which companies would benefit.

A tip sheet for tax breaks. I wonder how many other helpful publications Congress has for those seeking special favors. In any case, some of those benefiting most from these breaks seem to be active donors to members of Congress as well:

During this session, eight foreign corporations alone have generated at least 277 tariff-suspension bills. The total is undoubtedly higher, since the Post study could not identify the corporate sponsors of many bills.

The analysis shows that various Bayer subsidiaries were the unnamed primary beneficiaries of more than 70 suspension bills covering imported chemicals, including the ingredients for aspirin. Over the next two years those suspensions would cost the Treasury more than $35 million on imports worth nearly $850 million. A Bayer spokesman would say only that Bayer expects other corporations to share in the savings.

Since 2000, Bayer’s political committee has made campaign contributions totaling $951,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In 2005 alone, Bayer and its U.S. affiliates spent $3.2 million on lobbying.

Sounds like Bayer is getting its money’s worth…