WASHINGTON — CORRECTION: The article originally contained erroneous information about the sponsorship of some tariff-suspension bills by members of the South Carolina congressional delegation. Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan has sponsored seven. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson has sponsored 20. Copy corrected below
For decades, lawmakers helped home-state manufacturers lower the cost of imported materials by crafting bills that reduced or eliminated tariffs on products that range from massive factory equipment to vats of industrial-strength chemicals.
Instead, the once-routine bills are opening a rift among Republican lawmakers, pitting the likes of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint against his fellow South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, and dividing the states freshmen congressmen.
The bills benefit the likes of Michelin and Milliken, huge South Carolina employers.
DeMint, known as Sen. Tea Party, says they are a form of earmark, favors doled out to companies who, in return, line the pockets of politicians with contributions.
Other S.C. Tea Party favorites disagree, including U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, who joined Congress in the 2010 wave of conservative newcomers.
Ive had very candid conversations with Sen. DeMint, Mulvaney said. Hes trying to make the case why these are earmarks. I just dont get it.
Instead, said Mulvaney, the tariff suspensions help create jobs.
In the past, hundreds of the duty suspensions would be rolled into one big miscellaneous tariff bill every year or two an MTB, in Capitol Hill parlance and passed. Such legislation was so routine it was approved by unanimous voice vote.
But like much in Washington these days, what once was commonplace now is controversial, and the targeted tax breaks have come under scrutiny.
The scrutiny has opened a rift among Republican lawmakers. They like tariff reductions as tax cuts, but some see the miscellaneous tariff bills as congressional pork doled out to favored companies with lobbyists in return for campaign contributions.
Perhaps nowhere is the rift clearer than in South Carolina, with seven of eight congressional seats held by Republicans.
DeMint, a Greenville Republican, wants to limit lawmakers role in obtaining the duty suspensions, which he views as another form of the spending earmarks he has led colleagues to ban. Why must we erect needless obstacles and force businesses to hire lobbyists and grovel for attention from politicians just to be heard?
DeMint and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, are pushing legislation that would allow companies to seek duty relief directly from the International Trade Commission.
We have a win-win, bipartisan solution that will result in more tariff suspensions, streamlines the process, ends the pay-to-play scheme, gives small businesses better access and still retains congressional authority, DeMint said.
The DeMint-McCaskill measure would require Congress to pass legislation containing the duty reductions or removals that the Trade Commission approved.
Its a jobs bill
Graham, South Carolinas senior senator, said, while the DeMint-McCaskill bill had some merit, it might create other problems. Is it better to have unelected bureaucrats who are really not accountable to the voters make these decisions or is it better to have elected officials do the gate-keeping?
Instead of lawmakers trading votes among themselves, Graham said, transferring more power to the executive branch could lead to favor exchanges between a presidential administration and members of Congress.
Im sure I could have gotten money to deepen the Port of Charleston if I had voted for ObamaCare, Graham said, referring to President Obamas signature 2010 health care law.
Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican, disagrees with DeMint and has let the junior senator from his state know it.
The political problem for Mulvaney is that he was among the 87 House Republican freshmen who, shortly after their 2010 elections, pushed their party elders to adopt a House rule that expanded the earmark ban to include limited tariff benefits.
Now after 16 months in Washington, Mulvaney is having second thoughts.
Mulvaney joined 64 other House Republican freshmen three-quarters of the congressional class last month in writing to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to ask that tariff suspensions be excluded from the earmark ban. The MTB remains critical to expanding manufacturing employment, the lawmakers wrote. In other words, its a jobs bill.
Fellow Republican freshman U.S. Reps. Tim Scott and Jeff Duncan of South Carolina also signed the letter.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former Spartanburg prosecutor who defeated then-incumbent Bob Inglis in the 2010 Republican primary on a fierce anti-government platform, declined to sign. He views the MTBs as earmarks, and he is not supporting any, Gowdy spokesman Josh Dix said.
Michelin and Milliken
Besides DeMint, Gowdy and House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of Columbia are the only members of South Carolinas eight-person-strong congressional delegation who havent crafted bills seeking tariff suspensions in the current session of Congress or arent in the process of doing so.
Mulvaney has written 31 bills, followed by Duncan with 23, Scott with 20, Joe Wilson with 20 and Jeff Duncan with seven.
Graham said he had received requests from 79 companies, all based in South Carolina or with substantial operations in the state, and was vetting them. He wrote 21 tariff-suspension bills in the 2009-10 session of Congress for firms, including Michelin, Milliken & Co. and Nation Ford Chemical.
Milliken is Grahams fifth-largest campaign donor during his career, with $59,365 in total contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks money in politics. Graham said Milliken backed him financially because it supported his political stances, not in order to influence him.
Michelin, among the worlds largest tire-makers, spent $1.1 million in 2010 on issues that included lobbying on tariff-suspension bills introduced by Graham, according to a recent analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a government-oversight group in Washington.
Steve Evered, a Michelin lobbyist in Greenville, said the tire manufacturer sought tariff relief only on foreign-made materials and products that werent made in the United States, as required by congressional guidelines.
Several years ago, Evered said, a North Carolina company objected to Michelins bid to eliminate the duty on imported presses it uses to make tires for big earthmover machines. When Michelin representatives sent specs and showed that each mold was huge almost as large as a Ferris wheel the domestic firm realized it couldnt make equipment that large and withdrew its objection.