Gus Bilirakis Steers Brand USA Reauthorization Through House, Despite Objections

By: Kevin Derby | Posted: July 24, 2014 1:20 PM
Gus Bilirakis and Paul Ryan

Gus Bilirakis and Paul Ryan

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis’, R-Fla., “Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act” picked up steam on Capitol Hill this week despite the opposition of conservative Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who chairs the House Budget Committee. 

Bilirakis’ bill reauthorizes Brand USA, a public-private partnership that encourages tourists to come to the United States. Advocates insist Brand USA results in more than 1.1 million international tourists visiting the United States, creating $3.4 billion in spending, almost $1 billion in government revenue at the federal, state and local levels and supporting 53,000 new jobs.

The agency certainly has the support of the tourism industry.

“Brand USA works for America by attracting millions of new visitors and the dollars they bring to destinations across the country,” said U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow this week. “What’s remarkable is Brand USA does not cost federal taxpayers a dime, and it actually reduces the deficit -- all while delivering jobs and economic opportunity to America’s communities.”

But opponents point to Brand USA relying on monies from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), taxing international travelers. Back in 2012, two conservatives in the U.S. Senate -- then-U.S. Sen Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. -- found major problems with Brand USA, including waste and patronage issues.

Funding for Brand USA from fees and taxes collected from international visitors -- around $100 million -- was left out of the budget Ryan proposed back in April.

“This budget recommends ending these subsidies and eliminating the new agency because it is not a core responsibility of the federal government to pay for and conduct advertising campaigns for any industry,” Ryan noted in the memo unveiling the proposal. “Moreover, the travel industry can and should pay for the advertising that it benefits from.”

Pointing to a study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which showed Brand USA will reduce the deficit by $231 million, Bilirakis said Congress should continue to support it. Pointing to his home state, Bilirakis noted that tourism helps drive the Florida economy, leading to more than 1 million jobs and almost $71.5 billion in spending. Looking at the national picture, Bilirakis noted international tourism added more than $180 billion to the national economy.

“Tourism is an integral part of our economy – especially in Florida. Increased tourism means more American and Floridian jobs,” Bilirakis insisted. “My legislation means job growth without utilizing a dime of taxpayer dollars. Millions of Americans across the country are still struggling, and HR 4450 will help them get back to work. Brand USA reauthorization is a jobs bill.”

The House agreed with Bilirakis when his bill came to the House floor on Tuesday, passing 347-57. The opposition came from the Republican ranks, including Ryan. The only member of the Florida delegation to break with Bilirakis was U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.

“I am proud that my colleagues have joined me in a bipartisan effort to pass HR 4450 by an overwhelming vote of 347-57 in the House of Representatives, continuing the House’s track record of passing meaningful, impactful bills to help Americans across the country,” Bilirakis said after his bill was passed. “The Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act will increase Brand USA’s efficiency, effectiveness, transparency – it is a huge step forward for the accountability of the program. It is my hope the Senate will pass the companion bill – S 2250 – without delay.”

The Senate version is being sponsored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and has already garnered more than 30 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also backing the bill though he is not a co-sponsor.

The bill appears to be gaining traction in the Senate, passing the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation without opposition on Wednesday.

“I particularly want to thank Sen. Rubio and Sen. Nelson for their commitment to this legislation and to boosting Florida’s economy,” Bilirakis said after the vote. “This is a great step toward getting this job-creating, deficit-reducing legislation signed into law.”

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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