Washington Insider -- Thursday

Congressional Earmarks Reconsidered

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Coalition Urges Lifting of Section 232 Tariffs On Canada, Mexico

Lifting of Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and Mexico is being urged by a coalition of agriculture, manufacturing and business groups who maintain the actions have created difficulties for the ag sector.

"In full recognition of the importance of U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) ratification to the economic interests of all three countries, wish to underscore the importance of lifting tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and the removal of all retaliatory tariffs on trade among the parties," a coalition of farm and agriculture groups said in a letter to Trump administration officials.

The letter was addressed to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer. Among groups signing it were the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), North American Meat Institute (NAMI), U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Grains Council, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), United Egg Producers and United Fresh Produce Association.

USMCA benefits could fail to materialize if the metals tariffs stay in place, something a Farm Foundation analysis warned last year. The coalition reiterated those concerns, writing "For many farmers, ranchers and manufacturers, the damage from the reciprocal trade actions in the steel dispute far outweighs any benefit that may accrue to them from the USMCA."

Last year, there was talk that the metals duties would be lifted on Canada and Mexico following a successful conclusion to USMCA negotiations, but that did not prove to be the case. Meanwhile, lawmakers are pressing the administration to lift the duties, including new Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Upon taking the committee gavel, Grassley said he would use his perch to work towards approval of USMCA but added, "lingering Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico" must be addressed.

NPPC Slams EU Negotiating Mandates For US Trade Talks

The European Union's (EU) exclusion of agriculture from its draft negotiating mandates for trade talks with the U.S. drew sharp criticism from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

The U.S. included many ag and food issues in its own negotiating objectives released earlier this month. But, the European Commission left agriculture out its mandates "because of the sensitivity of the sector and the difficulty of finding agreement on geographical indications and intellectual property," according to EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

The EU decision to exclude agriculture did not come as a surprise. Following a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer earlier this month, Malmstrom tweeted that EU negotiators have been "clear" that they would not "discuss agriculture" during trade talks with the U.S.

The omission of ag from the EU mandates did not sit well with the top U.S. pork group. "We are infuriated," said NPPC President Jim Heimerl. "The EU is one of the most protected markets in the world for a lot of agricultural products, including pork. We are pleased that the Trump administration has been resolute in its demand that agriculture be included in the talks."

Washington Insider: Congressional Earmarks Reconsidered

The Hill is reporting an unusual development in Congress – with Democrats back in control of the House, The Hill reports “strong support” for reviving Congressional earmarks, the power to direct money for pet projects. “Earmarking” had fallen into disfavor in earlier administrations and has been widely considered to be a corrupt practice.

Still, The Hill claims that Senate and House lawmakers from both parties predict there will be a serious push to bring back earmarks once the government shutdown is finally over — with at least one difference. They likely will have a new name – “congressionally directed spending.”

Support for bringing back earmarks is not unanimous, but is growing as both parties work to counter the shift of power to the presidency.

“When you discontinue earmarks, you’re saying the administration can better spend the money in my district. They know best what we need,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.

He said it is “not just some, it is the majority” in the House Democratic Caucus that back ending the earmark ban. “Based on what I’m hearing, on the other side, they too believe it was a mistake to discontinue earmarks,” he said of his GOP colleagues.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a longtime ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also said, “It’s definitely worth a review. I know that I was always proud to have press conferences and press releases on all the things I did,” she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the most outspoken proponents for bringing back earmarks and has discussed it with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other colleagues.

Congressional earmarks reached their peak in the middle of Bush’s administration, when the fiscal 2005 defense spending bill included 2,506 earmarks worth $9 billion and the energy and water development bill included 2,313 earmarks worth $4.9 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The proliferation of earmarks fueled the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and led to the downfall of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to directing federal spending after receiving bribes from lobbyists.

The explosion in earmarks prompted a backlash that helped Democrats win control of the House in 2006, The Hill said. Yet the practice continued under then-President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress and the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending package included 9,000 earmarks totaling $5 billion. The practice was ended in 2010, after Republicans took control of the House in the Tea Party revolution and then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, imposed a ban.

Obama declared in his January 2011 State of the Union that “if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks in it, I will veto it. I will veto it.”

But the ensuing six years of Obama’s presidency was one of the most legislatively unproductive stretches in recent years, marked by stalemates over what had previously been considered routine business, such as raising the nation’s debt limit and funding the government.

Opponents such as Boehner and the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who died last year, are no longer in Congress to fight the return of earmarks. Other senior Republicans such as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri, have voiced support for allowing Congress to earmark funds again.

They think that if individual members of Congress have more power to direct federal resources back to their home states and districts, they are more likely to agree to bipartisan compromises and pass bills.

A spokeswoman for Shelby noted that the rules package passed by the new House Democratic majority did not include a prohibition on congressionally directed spending. “I think it’s not coincidental that the appropriations system and other legislative [process] dramatically deteriorated in their ability to produce a result at the same time that the Congress stopped directing the administration as to how money should be spent,” said Blunt, who also chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

One of the strongest proponents of earmarks is House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who like Pelosi served as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Hoyer says earmarks or congressionally directed spending should be allowed, albeit with reforms to make it tougher to secure shady deals for lobbyists or lawmakers’ personal gain, he told The Hill.

Hoyer noted that when Democrats controlled the House from 2007 to 2010, they adopted reforms included prohibitions on funding for-profit entities, requiring members to certify that they had no financial interest in their requests and ensuring that members post all of their requests along with a justification for each project on their congressional websites,” he said.

The practice has strong political appeal, but also has been misused in the past and would require strong oversight to avoid repeats of former embarrassments, Washington Insider believes.

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