Trump’s Tariffs Leave Congress With Few Options

Republican leaders may be against the proposal, but any legislative moves to tie the president’s hands would be either extreme or ineffective.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, joined by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, meets with reporters following a closed-door Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill Wednesday as they face President Trump's impending trade tariffs.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Daniel Newhauser and Brian Dabbs
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Daniel Newhauser and Brian Dabbs
March 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

Congressional Republicans are hoping to find a diplomatic way to tell President Trump that he’s bad at diplomacy.

Trump’s proposal to add tariffs to aluminum and steel has been met with resounding opposition among GOP leaders, who fear he could start a trade war, drive up the prices of goods, and negate the economic gains they believe they handed to Americans through their tax bill.

Yet opposed as they may be, a legislative response remains far-fetched—for now.

That is chiefly because party leaders, knowing Trump as they do, believe they can be more successful working with him than against him. And they know they would risk alienating a president who, although unpopular nationally, remains very popular with the Republican base. So instead of fighting the plan, they hope they can convince the administration to more narrowly tailor it.

Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday appeared to throw cold water on any legislative move.

“What we’re encouraging the administration to do is to focus on what is clearly a legitimate problem and to be more surgical in its approach so we can go after the true abusers without creating any kind of unintended consequences or collateral damage,” Ryan said. “We’ve had multiple conversations about this. He knows our view.”

As of Tuesday, however, Trump showed no sign that he would reverse course on tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum. In a press conference alongside Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Trump dug in on his intent to impose the tariffs, even saying that doing so could have a positive economic impact.

“When we’re behind on every single country, trade wars aren’t so bad,” Trump said. “We’re going to straighten it out, and we’ll do it in a very loving way.”

National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, an opponent of the tariffs, resigned Tuesday, signaling that the tariff push remains intact.

Part of the problem is that legislative options to tie Trump’s hands are alternately drastic or ineffective. And, of course, any legislation has one fatal flaw: Trump would have to sign it or Congress would have to muster a defiant veto-proof majority, a tall order considering some members in both parties agree with the proposal and many Republicans would be scared to cross the president.

In the House, members have mused about adding language to omnibus spending legislation this month that would prevent Trump from implementing his tariffs. The text could prohibit him from spending any government funds to implement the policy, essentially hamstringing the administration. But that strategy could also provoke a government-shutdown fight, something Republicans want to avoid in a pivotal election year.

Some Republicans on the other side of the Capitol are mulling a last resort—legislative options that strike at the heart of U.S. trade statute. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate panel that oversees trade policy, says he wants to give Congress direct influence on the potential tariffs.

“I think we’re just going to have to vote on that,” Hatch told National Journal, referring to the steel-and-aluminum proposal. “Everybody understands the problem.”

A congressional vote on specific tariffs, as opposed to trade deals, which go into effect only with legislation, would be unprecedented, Hatch admits. It’s also unclear if it would have any teeth.

Other senators, such as Tim Scott and Mike Lee, are working with colleagues to potentially move legislation that would rebalance tariff authority in favor of Congress. Over the past century, Congress has delivered dramatically more trade authority to the executive branch through a series of new laws.

That one-sided authority has rarely caused tension among the branches of government. But Trump’s steel-and-aluminum proposal is putting the dynamic to the test.

“I think we’ve gone too far,” Sen. Pat Toomey said.

At the outset of his presidency, Trump quashed a massive trade deal with a dozen Pacific countries, including economic behemoth Japan. Then Trump slapped tariffs on solar panels and washing machines at the beginning of this year. The administration is considering widespread tariffs on Chinese goods.

Trump aims to cut into the massive U.S. trade deficit through tariffs. That deficit hit more than $800 billion for goods traded in 2017.

The steel-and-aluminum tariff proposal is designed to safeguard national security. Those industries, which are vital in weaponry and other manufacturing, are under severe distress domestically.

But trade advocates argue that deficits don’t reflect economic health, pointing to domestic shifts towards the services industry rather than manufacturing. Now, some lobbyists are urging Congress to do more to combat the White House agenda.

“I think there’s enough screaming in Congress that his draconian actions may prompt [Republicans] to do something,” a trade lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, told National Journal. But “they’re not going to want to beat up on their own party’s administration.”

Despite that inaction, a bill that would upend U.S. trade law appears to gaining some strength in the Senate. That legislation, sponsored by Lee, would require congressional approval for all tariff increases beyond 90-day measures. Senate Finance Committee members John Thune and Pat Roberts pointed to Lee’s bill as an option but said they’re now trying to persuade the administration to shift gears.

Even Democrats, who are traditionally more supportive of tough trade policy, say they’re willing to explore legislation if those efforts fall short.

“The theory on the president having the authority and flexibility on trade was premised on there being ongoing consultation at every single step of the way,” Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden told reporters. “And so, you bet, if this administration doesn’t follow the law, which actually requires consultation, my guess is there will be a growing demand for the kind of legislation Senator Lee is talking about.”

Still, any legislation faces a steep uphill climb.

“I personally think it would be difficult to do. The president seems very committed to this so I don’t think it would be good for us to send a bill over that he would potentially veto,” House Appropriations Committee member Robert Aderholt said.

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