There’s an enduring rule in all aspects of life that is very applicable to conservatives in politics. Whenever you achieve a rare, hard-fought victory, you do everything possible to ensure that the victory stays intact. The House-adopted earmark ban is one of our biggest achievements over the past decade. As such, we must not reinstate the practice of passing Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTBs), which are earmarks by any other name.
On the surface, MTBs sound very innocuous, but in fact, they are part of a meretricious effort to reinstate special-interest favors that will ultimately countermand the entire ban on earmarks. Miscellaneous tariff bills are targeted pieces of legislation that temporarily suspend tariffs on imports of raw materials used by domestic manufactures. While we all support lower tariffs, these bills are often driven by special interest requests at the behest of lobbyists. They are used as another tool to advance parochial interests – an anathema to the conservative view that everyone is equal under the law.
Remember that not all earmarks are as nefarious and wasteful as the Bridge to Nowhere; nonetheless, they represent carve-outs for special interests and are used to grease the skids on bad legislation. Worse, they help perpetuate the “survival of the fittest lobbyist” culture that is so endemic in Washington. To that end, when House Republicans adopted the earmark ban at the beginning of the 112th Congress, they included “limited tariff benefits.” The language of the ban defines a limited tariff benefit as a “provision modifying the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States in a manner that benefits 10 or fewer entities.” The last tariff bill, with 600 targeted benefits, expires at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, 65 Republican freshmen, led by Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.), are spearheading an effort to reinstate MTBs – even those that benefit fewer than 10 companies. In fact, almost all of the 1300 outstanding requests would affect fewer than 10 entities, in violation of the House earmark ban. Some of the supporters are using this as a vehicle to attenuate the respect for the earmarks ban in an effort to bring back blatant earmarking. Others, including some good conservatives, are supporting limited tariff benefits under the guise of pro-growth tax policy. We must not fall into a trap that will vitiate one of our few political victories against special interests politics.
There are a number of members among the supporters of MTBs who continue to affirm their vociferous opposition to earmarks. But do those conservatives really believe that the earmark ban will remain intact after we reinstate the practice of limited tariff benefits? Once a member asks for a limited tariff modification on chemicals for a local manufacturer, what is to stop a more moderate Republican from demanding funding for pet projects?
Moreover, just as earmarks were used to seduce members into supporting bad legislation, targeted suspensions of tariffs will be used in the same way. Heading into the home stretch of the 112th Congress, we will be confronted with a terrible highway bill, farm bill, long-term extension of flood insurance, and a postal bailout. Does anyone really believe that most of these conservatives would be able to withstand the temptation to pass these bills in exchange for their personal MTBs?
But aren’t reductions in tariffs a good thing for the economy? Aren’t they similar to tax cuts?
Yes, they are similar to tax cuts – to targeted special interest tax cuts, which are universally opposed by Republicans. The same way we all oppose high taxes, yet believe that everyone should receive equal treatment in the tax code, we should take the same even-handed approach to tariffs. We should move away from special interest carve-outs, while pursuing low taxes and tariffs for everyone.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, some members fully understand the implications of reinstating limited tariff benefits:
“If it becomes what it looks like it’s becoming—another way to redefine earmarks—we’re going to have to fall on our sword to stop it,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R., Ariz.). “I think the American people will be very cranky if they think we’re starting to renege on our pledge.”
Added Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.): “We can’t be lured back into the old way Washington was run.”
Reps. Schweikert and Amash are rightfully anticipating the broader consequences of revoking the ban on MTBs. They understand that the issue at stake is far greater than one concerning limited “tax cuts.” They intuitively sense that by reinstating this practice we will reopen the can of worms that we worked so hard to seal. Will other conservatives join them?
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