New database brings transparency to tariff bills


Though they likely won’t become law in 2008, more than 800 bills that were introduced by 116 members of the House, that would cut taxes on imports by an estimated $1.1 billion, and that were specifically requested by 120 companies and organizations that would benefit from them, are still pending in the 110th Congress. The bills reduce or eliminate tariffs on everything from unicycles to storage batteries for hybrid cars, from hair fibers of the rare vicua to chemicals for making rodent poison. Of the named beneficiaries, 65 hired in-house or outside lobbyists that listed specific bills or tariff duty suspensions as issues they sought to influence, an analysis of records from the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), and the Senate Office of Public Records shows.

Like earmarks, tariff suspension bills generally benefit one firm. Unlike earmarks, members request tariff suspensions by introducing bills, which are referred to and vetted by the House Ways and Means Committee, and in the Senate, to the Finance Committee. The bills are analyzed by USITC to determine how much money the tariff suspension will cost the Treasury and whether a U.S. manufacturer producing the same good would be harmed by lowering the tariff for a foreign competitor. Bills that pass muster with the committee and USITC are rolled into a single miscellaneous tariff bill. With the waning days of the 110th Congress devoted to the bailout of the financial industry and the three domestic automobile manufacturers, and no single tariff measure introduced in either chamber, it appears unlikely that Congress will enact these measures.

Real Time is releasing a searchable database of the House tariff bills introduced in the 110th Congress–built on DabbleDB–that allows users to search bills by member, beneficiary (called a proponent), with links back to original documents. The database currently can be accessed in three views: a Main View, showing bill number, title, sponsor, the name and location of the beneficiary, links to the USITC analysis and, if any, to comments received by Ways and Means. The Main View also shows the how much money USITC believes the bill, if passed, would cost the Treasury in 2009, and information on the beneficiary’s lobbyists.

The Notes Mode lets users see more detail about the suspension–mostly descriptions of the item or items being imported. The Notes Mode can be used to find that Ford Motor Co. which recently sought a bailout from Congress in order to preserve American manufacturing jobs, requested tariff suspensions to allow it to import parts specially designed for hybrid cars, including batteries, steering columns, break assemblies, transaxles and converters, all of which were made in Japan.

Because 421 of the bills are extensions of prior tariff bills passed in the 109th Congress that were due to expire in 2009, the Prior Suspensions view links current bills with previous sponsors, beneficiaries, and amounts of revenue forgone. The Prior Suspensions view shows that, while members of Congress change, tariff breaks continue. Rep. Steven Buyer, R-Ind., was voted out of office in 2006. Before losing his seat, Buyer sponsored more than 30 tariff suspensions for Dow Chemical and its subsidiaries. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., introduced bills extending those tax breaks. The Prior Suspension view also shows that tariff suspensions are a bipartisan affair. In his first two years in the Senate, President-elect Barack Obama sponsored seven bills that lowered import duties for NuFarms America Inc., a subsidiary of Australian pesticide manufacturer Nufarrms Ltd., by nearly $1 million in 2009. Extensions of those tax breaks were introduced in the current Congress by Rep. Judy Biggert, a Republican.

By far, the biggest bill, both in terms of tax revenue forgone and number of supporters both in out of Congress, was the Affordable Footwear Act, introduced by Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., and co-sponsored by 157 other members. The House Ways and Means Committee received more than 50 letters from companies groups that supported the bill, which, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, would cost the Treasury $810 million in 2009 and $3.7 billion through 2013. Retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, Rack Room Shoes and Payless, manufacturers ranging from the venerable Brown Shoe to upstarts like Nike, and trade organizations like the National Retail Federation, argued in letters supporting the measure that those savings would be passed on to consumers. Only three letters opposed the measure, from E.S. Originals of New York, Proculcar, a trade association representing the Mexican shoe industry, and the government of the Dominican Republic; the latter two feared that cheap imports from China would swamp their own footwear export industries, which are dependent on sales in the U.S. market.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., introduced a measure that would extend an existing tariff suspension on camel hair, saving the Warren Corporation, a Connecticut-based textile firm, the princely sum of $5.40 a year.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., was the most prolific tariff suspension bill writer, introducing 49, followed by Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., with 47 and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., with 42. Some 34 members introduced a single bill. The Affordable Footwear Act made Crowley the biggest drain on the Treasury, followed by Tauscher ($179 million) and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. ($10 million).

Applied Materials LLC, a California-based firm that “creates and commercializes the nanomanufacturing technology that helps produce virtually every semiconductor chip and flat panel displays [sic] in the world”, would benefit the most, saving an estimated $178 million in 2009. Subsidiaries of Bayer AG, the German conglomerate, benefited from 93 requests — tops among those asking.

This database is a work in progress — more on its methodology and links to its source material and downloadable data in a variety of formats later today. And one more important note: House rules introduced in the current Congress required a greater degree of transparency for tariff legislation, which greatly facilitated the building of the database.