Congress Won’t Stop Trump’s Trade Assault

This article appeared in the The Hill (Online) on June 18, 2018.
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With U.S. trade policy teetering, some in Congress are belatedly realizing the need for oversight over this key determinant of the country's economic health. In particular, there is an effort to restrain the president's ability to impose tariffs on national security grounds. To head off abuse of such measures, bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would require such tariffs to obtain congressional approval within a 60-day window.

Enactment of such limits of presidential authority would certainly come at an opportune time. That both Republicans and Democrats are lining up behind them illustrates the growing perception that Trump is overstepping his bounds.

A favored part of his protectionist toolbox, Trump has already risibly cited alleged national security concerns to justify tariffs on imports of foreign steel and aluminum including from U.S. allies. The ludicrous launch of an investigation into the national security implications of auto imports, meanwhile, portends additional such measures—as well as the foreign retaliation that will inevitably follow.

While it's laudable that Congress is now stepping up to the plate, the effort will sadly almost certainly prove to be a futile one. Trump's possession of a veto pen as well as the considerable deference still afforded him by Republicans in Congress assure that the prospects of such language becoming law in the near-term are virtually nil. Indeed, 11 GOP senators refused to even vote in favor of a toothless censure of his trade policy.

The horse may have escaped the barn, but most federal legislators appear content to let it roam free, much less bring it back in and bolt the gate. 

In fairness to Congress, it wasn't supposed to be this way. The laws governing U.S. trade policy were written with the implicit assumption that the primary protectionist threat would come not from the White House but Capitol Hill. The logic is hard to fault. Filled with members more attuned to the parochial concerns of their individual districts or states rather than the national welfare, Congress has traditionally been more prone to bouts of protectionism designed to benefit favored constituencies. The president, meanwhile, has typically taken a more expansive and positive view of trade, placing more emphasis on its large but dispersed benefits than its comparatively smaller and more concentrated costs. 

Then along came Trump. 

Withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal only days after taking office, Trump spent the remainder of his inaugural year bellowing to aides about his desire for tariffs and casually musing about withdrawal from NAFTA. These rhetorical blasts, however, just proved to be the calm before the storm. This year the president has been unleashed, with 2018 witnessing a succession of protectionist moves. Whether on metals imports, China, or the alleged threat posed by foreign-built washing machines, the president has opted to impose new tariffs on American consumers whenever the opportunity has presented itself.  

With Trump readying retaliatory measures on China, labeling the European Union a commercial foe, and the auto investigation yet to be completed, additional protectionist misadventures almost certainly await. When one trade dispute is smoothed over, such as Trump's complaints over an allegedly unfair free trade agreement with South Korea, another always seems to be around the corner.

But how will a course correction be brought about?

Salvation seems unlikely even should a Democratic wave sweep through Congress this November. Although certainly eager to stymie Trump in any number of respects, it's difficult to imagine that the likes of Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) view his runaway protectionism done under the guise of national security as a pressing concern.

If a sliver of hope is to be found it is that the steady drip of stories detailing the havoc Trump's tariffs are playing with businesses across the country may stir Congress to stronger action. Even here, however, no one should be holding their breath. With stories replete of Trump supporters standing by their man even after suffering direct impact from the tariffs, this appears to be a long shot. Things will have to get worse, it seems, before they get better. 

This, then, is the summer of discontent for supporters of free trade. As Trump runs amok in search of new windmills to tilt his national security tariffs at, Republicans appear largely spineless in their opposition. Given the influence of protectionist organized labor interests, it also seems unlikely that Democrats will prioritize restrictions on Trump's trade recklessness should they take the reins of Congress next year.

The current effort to pare back the president's authority to impose tariffs on national security grounds, while certainly welcome, is likely years too late.

Colin Grabow

Colin Grabow is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies.