While we watched the course of the war in Iraq from press outposts in Baghdad and Fallujah, and while we watched that war debated between presidential and vice-presidential candidates in Cleveland and St. Louis last week, some pretty odd stuff was happening back in Washington.
The matter I raise here is one on the national stage. In many respects, however, national issues in this political season largely define our most immediate political concerns. And it is also a matter that has been so far a quiet part of the debate in our own 6th Congressional district.
On Thursday, a House vote on a House-Senate conference report on a corporate tax bill brought to light a scramble for special treatment of a wide array of individual Congresspersons' corporate concerns.
The tally of yeas and nays from our area representatives went this way: Ayes - Gerlach, Greenwood, LoBiondo, Pitts, Saxton, Smith, Toomey and Weldon. Nays - Andrews, Brady, Castle, Fattah, Hoeffel and Holden.
The original bill, HR 4520, the "American Jobs Creation Act of 2004," was entered into the record back in 2003. Its purpose was to help corporations whose federal export subsidies had been declared illegal by the World Trade Organization. That may sound like special pleading in itself, but a reasonable argument can be made for the approach.
In an effort to move the bill, however, leaders allowed it to become what the Philadelphia Inquirer called "the most sweeping rewrite of corporate tax laws in nearly two decades." Not by comprehensive review, but by guess, by gosh, and by golly.
The bipartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense suggested that "because it (HR 4520) has the dubious distinction of being just about the last legislative train leaving Capitol Hill before the elections ," lobbyists "made sure to hijack the dining car and serve the only dish they know how to prepare: plain ole pork."
A bill originally proposing $49.2 billion in targeted export tax breaks and running just eight pages became a $136 billion package, 650 pages in length, with these (highly selected) additional features:
* $231 million to underwrite bonds for four mall developments, in Syracuse, Shreveport, Lakewood, and Atlanta.
* $495 million to cover the costs of changes in accounting for shipbuilders.
* $995 million to cover costs of favorable tax treatment for ship and aircraft leases.
* A $42.6 million cost for lowering the tax on repatriated offshore dollars of U.S. multinationals.
* Suspension of excise tax on imported ceiling fans. Cost: $44 million. Happy party: Home Depot.
* A buy-out of tobacco farmers, with a cost of $10 million. A related provision that would link this spending to FDA control of tobacco companies was defeated in the conference.
* Tax rate reductions, costing $9 million, for manufacturers of archery equipment. Yes, I said archery equipment, as in bows and arrows. Hot items, those.
* A reduction in excise taxes on fishing tackle boxes, costing $11 million. And you thought that this couldn't get any better!
* Special tax treatment of NASCAR grandstand facilities. Cost: $101 million.
We often argue for "transparency" in government transactions. Well, what is eminently transparent here is that names of especially interested parties can be assigned each of these provisions. The shipbuilders' provision had Sens. John Breaux (D, LA) and Olympia Snow (R, ME) as its sponsors. The archery thing was shepherded in by Sens. Max Baucus (D, MT), and Orrin Hatch (R, UT). And the biggest beneficiary of the tackle box provision appears to be Plano Molding Co., in House Speaker Dennis Hastert's, and Rep. Jerry Weller (R, IL)'s districts.
"Job creation" here appears to be a possible consequence, not a guaranteed consequence, of this string of ever-so-specific items of government largesse.
With the House's approval of the conference report, the bill went on to the Senate, where a threatened filibuster over the tobacco provisions was put to rest yesterday afternoon, so that the bill's passage is probable no later than the end of this week.
Especially striking in all of this is the fact that not a whole lot of ink has been devoted to the issue in the press. Even the Inquirer made its comments in a short "business briefings" roundup. The New York Times followed the story, but ran only one short piece, on Friday, and relegated it, also, to its "Business" section. The bulk of coverage went to Iraq and to the presidential debates.
What is written here is no simple rant. I got an e-mail alert about passage of the conference report at about the same time as I got another announcing the magnificent news about the $250,000 County grant for North Side streetscape improvements. If that grant had been a federal one, and included in HR 4520, I might have rejoiced as much as employees of Plano Molding will be by the end of the week.
The difference is that our North Side $250,000, whether in county or in federal dollars, is a public grant for public purposes.
We just need someone to explain what the specific public consequences are of injecting $136 billion in public dollars into the very specific private sector enterprises supported in this bill.