The Trade War

Why Is Congress Letting This Man Set America’s Trade Policy?

June 12, 2019
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Donald Trump at CPAC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Are Republicans in Congress finally ready to play hardball with Trump on trade? That was the scuttlebutt last week following Trump’s unexpected declaration that he was slapping a heavy new tariff on Mexico to punish them for failing to solve the problem of illegal immigration into the U.S. for him. The Senate GOP erupted in protest at the announcement, which would have amounted to a massive new tax on American consumers. Texas senator John Cornyn described the prospect as “holding a gun to our own heads.”

Faced with the possibility of open revolt, the president quickly reversed course, announcing that Mexico had caved to his masterful pressure (Narrator: they hadn’t) and that the tariffs were thus no longer necessary. Thus was the potential disaster of the U.S. opening another front in its current trade war with China averted.

Good for congressional Republicans! It’s not enough.

This latest trade outcome is good news, but it’s an exception that proves the rule: President Trump gets more comfortable in his self-appointed role as Tariff Bully by the day. It’s not, of course, that he’s a new convert to protectionism: railing against America’s trade deals made up a huge chunk of Trump’s 2016 campaign. But after he took office, it took the president a good long time to work up to throwing his trade weight around: The White House’s first unilateral tariff action, a comparatively minor duty on imported washing machines, didn’t come until January 2018.

The year and a half since, however, has seen the president using (and threatening to use) his tariff authority at an increasing pace and in an increasingly erratic way. In 2018, that mostly took the form of starting one trade war with China and threatening another with Europe. Now, however, the president has begun to reach for the threat of tariffs in diplomatic situations that decreasingly have anything to do with trade at all, as with the aforementioned immigration tiff, or Trump’s repeated, bizarre threats to slap new tariffs on China if President Xi Jinping declines to meet with him at an international summit later this month.

It’s not hard to see why tariffs are a weapon Trump keeps whipping out at the slightest provocation. Contra the assurances of the free traders in his administration, the president has never made a secret of his belief that tariffs are a positive economic good. He seems to see them as a source of free money that strong nations can effortlessly extract from weaker ones. Couple that with what is commonly and politely referred to as Trump’s “improvisational” governing style—his propensity, in other words, to make grave policy choices based on the first notion that pops into his head—and you have a recipe for the foreign policy doctrine we increasingly see: Trump endeavoring to solve any foreign policy irritant through a vigorous application of tariffs.

Congress, if they wish, can spend the next two to six years putting out the fires that result. Hopefully, they will demonstrate they have the spine to do at least that. But for Congress to spend their time chasing the president’s trade moves—responding to each ad hoc tariff attack with an equal and opposite reaction of their own—would only solve part of the problem. The bigger issue is the economic anxiety the president invites each time he flails his tariff weapons around, the market instability that results when he does so incessantly, and the damage it does to our diplomatic relations each time the president shows that America cannot be counted on to honor its agreements.

If they wish to address these issues, Congress should act proactively: not just pledging to oppose future irresponsible trade actions from the White House, but actually moving to restrict the White House’s power to set U.S. trade policy by decree. This is, after all, a power vested by the Constitution in the Congress. Re-asserting this prerogative would require no great act of creativity: Sen. Mike Lee has already introduced a bill that would require Congress to sign off on any new trade barrier the White House wanted to put in place.

But does Congress actually want to commit to such a solution? Or would they rather continue to wag their heads when Trump throws around tariff threats, hoping to wheedle him into sparing them a tough vote at some point down the road.

If history is any indication, we’ll find out the answer to this question sooner, rather than later.  

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.