The House GOP banned “earmarks,” which allow a legislator to dole out taxpayer money for hometown projects. They also banned a lesser-known kind of favor, which allowed a Congress member to give a local company a break on its federal tariff payments.
But now, 19 months later, dozens of Republicans have decided they went too far. They want to bring one kind of favor back.
Led by a powerful committee chairman, GOP legislators have joined Democrats in proposing hundreds of those small tariff breaks. Legislators say each would be a mini-boost to the economy: Companies could save up to $500,000.
But this proposal has raised an old question for the “new” House: Are its favors being fairly distributed? Some GOP proposals would benefit just one company, and others would benefit a legislator’s own campaign donors.
To some unhappy conservatives, it all just looks like breaking your word.
“Do you start to whittle away at the commitments we made?” asked freshman Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.). “As cynical as the public is about us — and I think rightly so — we can’t start backing off these promises.”
Last month, Schweikert was one of 56 Republicans who signed a letter calling on House leaders to keep enforcing the new rules and to continue them in Congress’s next term. A spokeswoman for Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), the letter’s author, said she meant all the new rules — not just the ban on earmarks but the one on small tariff breaks too.
But there may have been some confusion among the 56 co-signers: 13 of them have already asked for tariff breaks this year.
Congress’s role in tariffs
This entire controversy revolves around one of the more obscure jobs that Congress assumes for itself — a 535-member editorial board for the country’s tariff code.
It works like this: Legislators propose temporary loopholes in tariff law to reduce the import duties on something specific. Most bills are about raw materials, imported by U.S. manufacturers. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), for instance, has sought tariff breaks on “waste of camel hair,” “camel hair, carded or combed” and “noils of camel hair” for a fabric maker in his district.
Other bills deal with industrial chemicals with tongue-spraining names, such as p-Toluenesulfonyl chloride.
At Nation Ford Chemical, a pigment-maker in Fort Mill, S.C., President Jay Dickson needed this chemical and asked the staff of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) to help him import it more cheaply.
“There is no process other than a bill in Congress” to get the tariff reduced, Dickson said. He said he’d done no in-person lobbying: “Absolutely no donations, whatsoever, and no special access.”
But if Dickson got his wish with just an e-mail, watchdog groups say it isn’t always that simple. They say the system often works like the one that doled out “earmarks”: It favors companies that donate to legislators’ campaigns, and companies that lobby on Capitol Hill.