Trade Lessons Unheeded

Daniel J. Ikenson, Associate Director, Center for Trade Policy Studies:

January 29, 2009

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Leaving aside the many other disastrous implications of the pork-laden “stimulus” bill, here are some thoughts about its impact on international trade. For all practical purposes there is no difference between the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill of 1930 and the “Buy American” provisions in the $819 billion spending bill that passed the House Wednesday.

Smoot-Hawley was the catalyst for a pandemic of tit-for-tat protectionism around the world, which helped deepen and prolong the global depression in the 1930s.  “Buy American” provisions will no doubt inspire similar trade barriers abroad and will have the same effect of reducing global trade—and therefore prospects for economic recovery.  It is not unreasonable to say that U.S. policymakers are on the verge of taking us down that same disastrous path.

The bill that passed the House includes the following language:

None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for a project for the construction, alteration, maintenance, or repair of a public building or public work unless all of the iron and steel used in the project is produced in the United States.

The version currently before the Senate contains the same language, which would seem to indicate that scrapping the provision won’t be necessary to reconcile the two versions in conference.  So, unless the “Buy American” clause is dropped in the final Senate bill or is somehow defused during conference, the U.S. will have fired the first shot in what could evolve into a much wider trade war.

It’s usually better to be circumspect and to issue such dire warnings sparingly, but I see little room for alternative conclusions here.