Business as usual

The recently departed 109th Congress couldn’t get its regular work done but in its closing hours it proved it could do business as usual.

A $50 billion — that we know of — tax and trade bill emerged from Congress in the wee hours, and it was packed with special-interest provisions of which most lawmakers were probably unaware.

Most glaringly, it included a Medicare measure — earlier rejected by Senate negotiators — that would benefit a big insurance company in outgoing House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s home state of Illinois.

Irked senators, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell and the incoming and outgoing chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, say they will try to strike the provision in the new conference.

In what the parties deny was a tradeoff but sure looks like one, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid added a land-swap measure for his home state of Nevada. That provision would designate 900 square miles of federal land as wilderness in exchange for allowing 70 square miles of federal land to be sold for private development.

Environmental groups are split on the measure — some favor it — but the real question is: What is it doing in a tax and trade bill? The answer is that the bill had to be passed that night, lest certain popular tax breaks expire at the end of the year, and no one was going to delay adjournment by asking a lot of questions.

In addition, the bill accumulated 520 targeted special-interest tariff suspensions that will cost the Treasury tens of millions of dollars. These waive the duties on certain imports and are not supposed to exceed $500,000.

The lawmakers get around the cap by submitting multiple suspensions. Moreover, the suspensions are often written in opaque language that makes it difficult to identify the company benefiting. The lawmakers must vote on the suspensions en masse, making it difficult to target the more egregious tax breaks.

The Washington Post reports that with this and other measures the last Congress enacted a record number of tariff suspensions that will ultimately cost the Treasury hundreds of millions of dollars.

The incoming chairman of the House trade subcommittee promises to close the loophole that allows the cap to be evaded and to require that the lawmakers specify which companies would benefit from a suspension.

The voters can only hope that Congress’ changing hands means a new way of doing business and not just new people doing business as usual.