Republican leaders in Congress announced Monday that they are all on board to ban spending “earmarks” when the newly elected Congress convenes in January. That is all to the good. While not a large share of the federal budget, the designation of tax dollars to fund specific pet projects in member districts has come to symbolize out-of-control spending in Washington.
Those same leaders should clarify that the earmark ban applies only to spending projects—not to the kind of tariff suspensions including in a recent miscellaneous tariff bill.
The U.S. Manufacturing Enhancement Act approved by Congress in July suspended tariffs on hundreds of imported items of special interest to U.S. manufacturers. House Republican leaders made the mistake earlier this year of including such tariff suspensions in an earmark ban they announced in March.
The overly broad definition of an earmark boxed the leadership into opposing a perfectly sensible trade bill. Despite the half-hearted opposition of the GOP leadership, the U.S. Manufacturing Enhancement Act passed overwhelmingly in the House on July 21, by a margin of 378-43, with Republicans supporting it by a 3-1 margin.
Most members of Congress already understood what the Cato Institute pointed out in a September 2010 study recommending reform of future miscellaneous tariff bills—that tariff cuts are not the same as spending earmarks. Here is what I wrote in the study about the difference between tariff cuts and the kind of spending earmarks that has angered voters:
Spending-bill earmarks distribute tax dollars not for any public purpose authorized under the U.S. Constitution, but rather to benefit a certain special interest or a specific city or district. They grant favors to a small group of beneficiaries at the public’s expense. In contrast, a tariff suspension repeals a narrow tax that falls disproportionately and unfairly on a small group of producers. Instead of granting a favor at the public’s expense, a tariff suspension relieves individual producers of a burden that falls on them and nobody else. Unlike a spending earmark, a tariff suspension creates no new claim on public resources. It does not expand the scope or size of government.
Including tariff suspensions in the moratorium is not a matter of curbing the power of lobbyists. There is a world of difference between lobbying for a $500,000 government grant for a project with narrow benefits, and lobbying to remove a $500,000 tax bill that only a handful of enterprises are required to pay. The former seeks an expansion of the government’s power and influence, the latter a reduction. Republicans who rightly complain about the growth of the federal government should be the first to embrace the suspension and repeal of hundreds of nuisance taxes distorting the economy and burdening American producers.
The new Congress may soon consider another miscellaneous tariff bill to further reduce discriminatory tariffs that impose real costs on U.S. companies trying to compete in global markets. Republican leaders should join with their Democratic counterparts in the new Congress to clarify that suspending or repealing unfair tariffs should not be banned but should be vigorously pursued.