You’ve probably heard of the earmark to build the bridge to nowhere in Alaska.
But what about tariff breaks for those who make snow globes? Or yard ornaments depicting school mascots? Or men’s shoes?
Not just any shoes, but to be precise: "certain men's footwear covering the ankle, the height of which from the bottom of the outer sole to the top of the upper exceeds 19 cm, with waterproof molded soles, valued at more than $30 per pair.’’
Those are all items that lawmakers in Washington sought to designate as worthy of a tariff break for companies in 2009-2010.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, was one of 65 freshmen Republicans who signed an April 20 letter calling for support of the "miscellaneous tariff bill’’ which would reward these breaks. (Other Florida members who signed included Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City.)
After POLITICO wrote about the tariffs and their similarity to earmarks, which are currently banned, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted out an email:
"According to Politico, Representative Allen West (FL-22) has been caught ‘begging’ Republican leaders to bring back earmarks. West signed a letter in support of earmarks ‘even though it runs counter to the earmark ban Republicans campaigned on in 2010 and instituted when they took power.' "
Does West calling for the tariff breaks mean he wants to bring back earmarks?
What’s a miscellaneous tariff bill?
To begin at the beginning: American companies import materials to make everything from umbrellas to medicines to pianos. The importers of these raw materials have to pay federal tariffs. And every year, hundreds of American companies, often with the help of lobbyists, ask members of Congress to suspend those tariffs. Supporters say waivers allow them to keep prices lower and employ more Americans.
Members introduce the requests as individual bills, which go through committees and then are vetted by the International Trade Commission and other agencies. The bills must meet certain criteria, including a limit on the loss of tariff revenue to under $500,000 per year.
(The Washington Post found that lawmakers circumvent that dollar limit by filing multiple bills. In 2005, a Massachusetts representative filed six different bills changing the wording slightly to cover leather basketballs, rubber basketballs, etc.)
The International Trade Commission posts the requests with explanations of the products. For example, here's an explanation about those snow globes, requested by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., on behalf of a company in Missoula: "A snow globe is filled with plastic flakes (or metallic glitter) in an aqueous liquid. ... Shaking or inverting the snow globe stirs up the plastic flakes that settle slowly in the liquid when the globe is set upright, thus creating the effect of snow fall upon the figurine, object, or scenery inside."
Members had until April 30, 2012, to submit requests. The bills probably won’t reach the chambers for votes until fall.
West didn’t submit any requests, said his chief of staff Jonathan Blyth on the deadline day.
At least one South Florida lawmaker did, though. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, filed one for certain coffee brewers with "milk frothing capacity" and another for electromechanical ice shavers.
Is it an earmark?
The DCCC -- and some Republicans -- say tariff breaks are equivalent to bringing back earmarks.
Back in 2010, the House Republican Conference adopted a rule stating members couldn’t request earmarks or limited tariff benefits. A limited tariff benefit is defined as benefiting less than 10 companies.
Today, lawmakers introducing miscellaneous tariff bills say they could apply to any company. But it’s not clear that’s always the case, since some of the bills seem quite specific.
West’s office pointed us to this myths vs. facts page distributed by the House Ways and Means Committee. In the fact sheet, the Republicans argued that earmarks increase spending, but tariff bills reduce tariffs and are equivalent to a tax cut. They also said the tariff waivers could apply to any company and that the process is a "model of transparency."
There is some feuding in the ranks about whether they are earmarks and about how they're handled.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has teamed up with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to propose changing the process so businesses go directly to the trade commission to seek the tariff break. Lawmakers would still have to vote on it, but they wouldn’t have the chance to pick and choose which ones to forward to the commission. DeMint argues that would get rid of the "pay-to-play racket."
"Some want to restart this part of the political favor factory and hope Americans don't notice Republicans breaking their own earmark ban, and others want to redefine earmarks to create a loophole for tariff suspensions," DeMint wrote in an op-ed for CNN.com.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent group that monitors earmarking and other budget issues, has raised concerns about the tariff bills because of the "potential pay-to-play and special interest giveaways that it perpetuates," said vice president Steve Ellis in a recent email.
"So call them earmarks, call them limited tariff benefits, call them whatever you like, we are still concerned with this legislation," he said.
Ellis said he will analyze this year's list to determine if some raise the same concerns as earmarks -- such as benefiting few people who are giving campaign donations to their members in Congress.
So would Ellis call them earmarks?
"I’m going to wait and see," he said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are."
The DCCC said that West’s signature on a letter with dozens of House Republicans calling for a miscellaneous tariff bill means that he wants to bring earmarks back.
Tariff breaks do raise some of the same concerns as earmarks. Business owners who can help fund candidates’ campaigns seek the financial benefit from their own representatives. And some of the bills are written in such a way as to only benefit a select few.
But the process and the particulars involved in earmarks vs. tariff breaks are very different. Earmarks direct spending; tariff bills are more like tax breaks. More importantly, the process for tariff breaks is transparent and relatively easy to track, unlike the earmarks of previous years.
We rate the DCCC's statement Mostly False.