WASHINGTON – A massive tax bill that Congress passed last week contained a little-noticed gift for select corporations: tens of millions of dollars in breaks on import tariffs.
Early Saturday, in the frantic final hours of the 109th Congress, lawmakers rolled 520 separate tariff suspensions into the sweeping bill. The provisions will reduce or eliminate taxes on imported products as varied as shoes, camcorders and boiled oysters.
While such suspensions have been around for decades, the flurry of provisions pushed this Congress to a record of nearly 800 for the year. Corporate lobbyists often craft such suspensions to apply to just one product imported by just one company. Many of those companies and their executives have given millions of dollars to political campaigns.
This week, leaders from both parties called for changes in the system.
“This is just good, old-fashioned pork,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., vice chairman of the House Republican conference. Kingston described the suspensions as a stealthy variety of Congressional earmark – a term for bills that direct the government to spend public money on behalf of a particular special interest.
“A lot of members of Congress are just clueless as to what is going on,” Kingston said. “You can spend money away or you can tax-credit it away. Either way, somebody else is going to pick up the difference.”
Congressional sponsors of the suspensions say they are trying to lower consumer prices and create jobs by cutting costs for retailers and U.S. manufacturers. They said they generally drop legislation if trade officials find a U.S. competitor that objects.
Few, if any, of the arcanely worded tariff provisions identify the company that initiated the legislation. Some provisions fail to identify the product as well, referring instead to strings of numbers keyed to phone-book-sized tariff tables.