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Take politics out of tariff rules

By Jim DeMint, Special to CNN
April 25, 2012 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sen. Jim DeMint says companies shouldn't have to beg Congress for a break on tariffs.
Sen. Jim DeMint says companies shouldn't have to beg Congress for a break on tariffs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Jim DeMint: Manufacturers who want tariff exemptions must get OK from Congress
  • He says the result is a process akin to budget earmarks in which lobbying is key
  • DeMint, who is Republican, and a Democrat are sponsoring legislation to change system
  • DeMint: Our legislation would level the playing field for small business

Editor's note: Jim DeMint, a Republican, is a U.S. senator representing South Carolina.

(CNN) -- If you have lived a happy, normal, American life, you have probably never heard of something so tedious and alien as a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill. I envy you. But strange as it sounds, the obscure MTB is at the heart of a very small -- but very significant -- fight for American freedom.

So, what is an MTB? It works like this.

Every day, you and I use materials that come from other countries. From umbrellas to medicines to cars, even if they are made in the USA, their plastics and chemicals and other raw components are often imported.

Jim DeMint
Jim DeMint

Frequently, these raw materials are taxed at the border with federal tariffs, even if such products aren't produced in the United States and therefore must be imported.

And so, every year, hundreds of American companies ask Washington for relief from one or another tariff in the form of a "duty suspension" - essentially a waiver on the tariff. These suspensions can typically save an American company hundreds of thousands of dollars that in turn allows them to keep more Americans employed, while giving consumers access to less expensive, higher quality products we might otherwise go without.

Who could possibly benefit from a process whereby nonpolitical companies...are forced by Congress to hire a lobbyist and pony up cash for re-election campaigns...
Sen. Jim DeMint

Each particular duty suspension must first be introduced as its own bill. They all get referred to the same congressional committees, which then pass them along to the International Trade Commission, which vets the merits of the application and sends back the approved ones packaged into -- you guessed it -- a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, which passes the House and Senate without any objection from anyone.

It's a bipartisan no-brainer.

Except, well, look at that first step again. Each individual tariff suspension has to be turned into a special bill and introduced by the company's representative or senator. Why? Why can't companies just petition the International Trade Commission directly, since they're the agency that reviews the applications anyway?

I mean, who could possibly benefit from a process whereby nonpolitical companies, rightly focused on their customers and products, are forced by Congress to hire a lobbyist and pony up cash for re-election campaigns in order to get something the law says they deserve? Who, indeed?

The process is worse than unfair and inefficient; it's fundamentally un-republican and un-democratic.

If an application to suspend a tariff has merit, small businesses shouldn't be forced to grovel and kiss the ring of their own public servant to get it suspended.

This is why this bad process has been treated just like spending earmarks under House and Senate rules for years and why Republicans in the House and Senate included limited tariff benefits as part of the earmark ban after 2010 elections.

Some want to restart this part of the political favor factory and hope Americans don't notice Republicans breaking their own earmark ban, and others want to redefine earmarks to create a loophole for tariff suspensions. But the whole purpose of the earmark ban was to change the way we do business, not to change the definitions and rules of earmarks to pretend bad behavior is suddenly alright.

And we wonder why Congress's approval rating is in the single digits.

That's why I have introduced bipartisan legislation to end this odious practice and reform the MTB process once and for all. The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, streamlines the MTB process by allowing manufacturers to petition the trade commission directly.

Under our reformed process, once these requests have been properly vetted, the trade commission can make its recommendations to Congress. Congress would retain its authority over trade policy and the ability to assist constituent companies with the MTB process, while the time and money saved from cutting out the lobbying process will benefit small businesses and their consumers, to say nothing of disinfecting the ugly, quasi-feudalism of the current pay-to-play racket.

Our legislation would level the playing field for small businesses. As it is, the companies that obtain duty suspensions are too often those that can afford the most expensive, well-connected lobbyists. Our proposal allows every business to bring its case before a group of independent commissioners at the trade commission right from the start; no longer will large corporations be able to buy their way to the front of the line.

Cleaning up bureaucracy and giving small businesses a fair shake in Washington is just one small step toward helping a few more citizens to go back to enjoying a happier and more normal American life.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jim DeMint.

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