Byrd Watching

Corporate welfare queens.


In 2000 Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) slipped a provision into an agricultural appropriations bill the night before the House passed it. He did this–without benefit of committee hearings, public comment, or any debate whatsoever–in the name of fairness. The stealth amendment, which Byrd said would combat "unfair trade practices" and encourage "simple justice for the American worker," was reluctantly signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, who asked Congress to repeal it with due speed.

Known as the Byrd Amendment, the provision funnels revenue from antidumping tariffs directly to the companies that request the tariffs. Companies thus have every incentive to complain, accurately or otherwise, that their foreign competitors are selling goods at prices below the cost of production. Congress never did get around to repealing the law, but four years later a couple of congressmen asked the Government Accountability Office how it had worked out.

Of the $1 billion meted out since 2000, the GAO found, two-thirds went to three industries; half went to five corporations. The biggest chunk of cash went to Timken Co. of Canton, Ohio, a ball bearing producer. William Timken–contributor to the Bush re-election campaign, finance co-chairman for the Bush campaign in the key state of Ohio, and U.S. ambassador to Germany as of July–is the former chairman of a company that claimed a cool $205 million under the amendment. Other big winners include two subsidiaries of Timken Co., a candle company, and a mom-and-pop operation known as Zenith Electronics.

Competing domestic companies that didn't collect, because they hadn't complained, were less enthusiastic about the amendment. Some are suffering from retaliatory tariffs imposed after the World Trade Organization declared the Byrd measure incompatible with its rules. But worse, for some, was the effect of the amendment on domestic competition. The windfall allowed privileged domestic producers to compete unfairly and, according to the GAO report, "offer products for sale at below the cost of production."?