Economy & Business

Trump’s Trade War Sparks Congressional Backlash

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The tariffs showcase the problem with executive power.

The Trump administration, following indications that it might take a different course, has doubled down on its unwise strategy of deterring imports by way of tariffs.

Tariffs on Chinese products do not come as a surprise, despite the hints of détente last month. The president and his advisers have emphasized the menace of China as an industrial power and competitor for some time now. And to an extent, they even have a point: While China has been a strong economic partner for a few decades now, and while a lot of good can come from trading even with rival powers, China is not typically thought of as a U.S. ally.

But now Canada and the European Union have been caught up in the dragnet as well. The president has reportedly proclaimed his desire to ban imports of German cars. This wave of protectionist sentiment forms the backdrop to this year’s G7 summit, an economics-focused meeting among representatives from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Italy, France, and Germany. (If the administration is serious about tackling fraud in Chinese business practices, coordinating with, rather than alienating, the other G7 nations might have been a good start.)

A “trade war” is not quite the same thing as a regular war, but the unilateral nature of this one has led to an interesting, and welcome, pushback: the reassertion of congressional power. The tariffs are bad policy on their merits, but they are made more dangerous by the fact that they are issued by executive fiat, on spurious national-security grounds. Procedure matters, even where the policy outcomes are desirable.

Some members of Congress, it seems, have had quite enough, though Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes their efforts.

Senator Bob Corker introduced a bill yesterday, joined by five Republicans and four Democrats, that would require the president to submit to Congress any proposals to change import policy on national-security grounds. It would apply retroactively, to all changes made in the past two years. Corker hopes to introduce it as an amendment to a defense-spending bill, as McConnell has ruled out a standalone tariff-reform bill. It’s disappointing that more Republicans, who habitually decry the abuse of executive discretion, and more Democrats, who continuously talk about the administration’s flouting of norms in foreign relations, did not join as sponsors, but perhaps the difference will be made up in the voting.

Congress is the supreme branch of government, invested with the ability to impeach members of the other branches. Within the original constitutional framework, this is buttressed by the different nature of power between the two houses of Congress, each of which was considered reflective of the body politic in a unique way. The House was designed to represent the people, as individuals, whereas the Senate was designed to represent the states, as states. In this, the Framers (who, let us not forget, were Englishmen) aimed to preserve in text a version the Settlement of 1689, which enshrined de facto parliamentary sovereignty in England.

Despite this, Congresses have seen fit to play second fiddle to the presidency, allowing administrations to engage in policy beyond their constitutional purview. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in their complete abdication of the congressional war-making power, allowing the Obama and Trump administrations to engage in unauthorized operations throughout the world. Jefferson had hoped that jealousy of power would cause different elements and levels of government to constrain one another, but this has not been borne out.

The founding generation was reared on a diet of Roman writers, cultural “ancient liberties,” and David Hume’s History of England. Consequently, they feared that a powerful executive might try to seize power, and that vigilance would be required to prevent that. They did not anticipate that this power would gladly be given up, or that the people would come to regard the executive as a national icon, to be scorned or flattered depending on orientation.

I am pleased that part of Congress is asserting its power, and I hope that this tendency will grow.

The trade war, though, might just be the catalyst. The optics of foreign wars are different; politicians fear being seen as weak by opposing them, and the financial disaster is deferred through inflation of the national debt. The costs are much more immediate for the families of those killed, but they number few by comparison. In contrast, a trade war, brought on against not only the specter of Chinese manufacturing, but against America’s traditional allies as well, including Canada and Europe, would find itself felt by every constituent, through higher prices, lost jobs, and a lower standard of living.

The traditional explanation for how special-interest laws get passed is that their costs, though high, are dispersed through the entire population, whereas the benefits are concentrated on the politically active constituency that lobbies for them. The Trump administration’s barrage of proposed import taxes, though, might impose high enough costs that the public at large will take notice — especially given the loudness of pro-tariff voices.

I am pleased that part of Congress is asserting its power, and I hope that this tendency will grow.

Jibran Khan — Jibran Khan is the Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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