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By Michael Collins May 25, 2012

Tennessee Democrats accuse freshman Congressman Stephen Fincher of breaking no-earmarks pledge

Back when he was a candidate, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher signed a pledge that he would not ask for any federal earmarks, the special funding requests that lawmakers sometimes seek for pet projects like Alaska’s now-famous "Bridge to Nowhere."

But the Republican from Crockett County failed to live up to that promise once he got to Washington to represent Northwest Tennessee, according to the state’s Democratic party.

"Fincher Breaks Earmark Pledge" proclaimed a headline on a recent blog post on the Tennessee Democratic Party’s web site.

"It seems like partisan posturing in 2010 has given way to the desire to curry favor with the special interests that are bankrolling his campaign," the Democrats concluded in their post on April 25, 2012.

We called the state party and asked them to back up the claim. Spokesman Brandon Puttbrese pointed us to a Gannett News Service article that documented the controversy over a tariff measure loaded with breaks for imports—breaks that critics say qualify as earmarks.

"We stand by what we wrote on the blog," Puttbrese said.

A little background is in order, courtesy of our colleagues at PolitiFact Florida, who recently looked into a similar claim the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made against U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.

American companies import materials to make everything from umbrellas to medicine to pianos. The importers of these raw materials have to pay federal tariffs. And every year, hundreds of American companies, often with the help of lobbyists, ask members of Congress to suspend those tariffs. Supporters say waivers allow them to keep prices lower and employ more Americans.

Members introduce the requests as individual bills, which go through committees and then are vetted by the International Trade Commission and other agencies. The bill must meet certain criteria, including a limit on the loss of tariff revenue to under $500,000 per year. The trade commission posts the requests online, with explanations of the products that will benefit.

Members had until April 30, 2012, to submit requests. The bills probably won’t reach the chambers for votes until fall.

Fincher didn’t submit any requests for tariff breaks, his spokeswoman, Jennifer Cook, said in an email.

But he did sign an April 20 letter to House Speaker John Boehner calling for support of the "miscellaneous tariff bill," which would reward the breaks. All told, 65 freshmen Republicans signed the letter. (Another Tennessee freshman, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, also signed the letter.)

Cook said Fincher signed the letter because duty suspension and reductions enacted in the 111th Congress are set to expire at the end of 2012. The duties will increase if legislation is not enacted to extend their current levels. That would add to the costs of importing raw materials, which would mean increased production costs and higher prices for American-made goods, which would result in the possible loss of manufacturing jobs, Cook said.

"Congressman Fincher believes in fostering an environment where manufacturers have access to the most inexpensive supplies available in order for U.S. manufacturers to be competitive on a global level," Cook said. "By signing this letter and encouraging passage of the MTB, Congressman Fincher hopes manufacturers can be confident in the future of the price of imported goods and the rate at which they can create and market these goods."

Fincher does not consider the tariff breaks earmarks, Cook said. "Congressman Fincher believes that earmarks are direct congressional spending on a specific item in legislation, whereas a tariff is a tax break," she said.

Cook also pointed us to a myth vs. facts page distributed by the House Ways and Means Committee. In the fact sheet, Republicans argued that earmarks increase spending, but tariff bills reduce tariffs and are equivalent to a tax cut. They also said the tariff waivers could apply to any company and that the process is a "model of transparency."

Democrats beg to differ and are going after Republicans who signed the letter to Boehner.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent group that monitors earmarking and other budget interests, also raised concerns about the tariff bills in an email to PolitiFact Florida, citing the "potential pay-to-play and special interest giveaways that it perpetuates."

But Steve Elllis, the group’s vice president, stopped short of calling the requests earmarks. Ellis said he needs to analyze this year’s list, but added he would not be surprised if some of the requests are earmarks.
Our ruling

The Tennessee Democratic Party claims Fincher’s decision to sign the letter voicing support for the "miscellaneous tariff bill" means he has reneged on his no-earmarks pledge.

But while tariff breaks do raise some of the same concerns as earmarks, they are different. Earmarks direct spending; tariff bills are more like tax breaks. More importantly, the process for tariff breaks is transparent and relatively easy to track, unlike the earmarks of previous years.

We rate the Tennessee Democratic Party’s claim as Mostly False.

Our Sources

Tennessee Democratic Party, Fincher Breaks Earmark Pledge, April 25, 2012

Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, Incumbents & Candidates Sign CCAGW’s No Pork Pledge, accessed on May 17, 2012

Elizabeth Bewley, Gannett News Service, Rep. Fincher of Tenn. asked for earmarks, critics say, April 25, 2012

Brandon Puttbrese, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, interview with PolitiFact on May 17, 2012

United States International Trade Commission, Congressional Bill reports, 105th-111th Congress

Cato Institute, Ban spending earmarks but not tariff cuts, Nov. 16, 2010

Jennifer Cook, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, email to PolitiFact on May 21, 2012

Letter to House Speaker John Boehner from 65 House freshmen, April 20, 2012

House Committee on Ways and Means, Facts about the miscellaneous tariff bill, accessed on May 21, 2012

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, interview with PolitiFact on April 25, 2012

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Tennessee Democrats accuse freshman Congressman Stephen Fincher of breaking no-earmarks pledge

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