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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Supreme Court Punts Gerrymandering Cases
33 minutes ago

"The Supreme Court on Monday passed up its two opportunities this term to rule on when and whether states violate the Constitution by drawing electoral maps that sharply favor one political party." In a dispute over Maryland's congressional map, the Supreme Court "upheld a district court judge’s decision not to grant a preliminary injunction" blocking the map. In the Wisconsin case Gill v. Whitford, the justices ruled that Democratic voters lacked standing to challenge the redrawn electoral boundaries at the Supreme Court. Seven justices
"agreed to give the challengers another shot at making their case in the lower courts."

Ross Still Has Stake in Chinese Companies
1 hours ago

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to keep his promise to divest from his company holdings upon entering government, a Forbes investigation has found. Ross reportedly kept his stakes in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a firm linked to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and a Cyprus bank caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation. Forbes reports that Ross’s family continued to have an interest in these holdings while he dealt with China and Russia in his official role, even while knowing that his family’s fortunes were linked to the countries. Although the arrangements appear to be legal, Forbes says Ross may have broken the law by submitting a sworn statement to officials in November saying he divested of everything he promised he would. His spokesperson said Ross did not lie and has filed amended paperwork.

Pentagon Greenlights Offensive Cyberattacks
1 hours ago

"The Pentagon has quietly empowered the United States Cyber Command to take a far more aggressive approach to defending the nation against cyberattacks, a shift in strategy that could increase the risk of conflict with the foreign states that sponsor malicious hacking groups." The policy change empowers the command to conduct cyberattacks against adversaries, including "nearly daily raids" against enemy networks and "non-kinetic" attacks against military targets. The purpose of the change, according to policy documents, is to “contest dangerous adversary activity before it impairs our national power" and to impel adversaries to "shift resources to defense and reduce attacks.”

Border Patrol Chief Weighs In On Family Separation
2 hours ago

Manuel Padilla, the Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, expressed his desire to CBS News for action to be taken to address family separation at the border. Separations have spiked under the Trump Administration's "zero-tolerance" policy. "We created this situation by not doing anything," Padilla said, arguing that previous immigration policy had created a "vacuum" for other families to attempt to cross the border.

Senators Want to Rubber Stamp Any North Korean Deal
5 days ago

"As Trump signed a joint statement with Kim Jong Un that offered few details on how the North Korean leader would make good on his vow to denuclearize, Republicans on Capitol Hill said Tuesday that they want and expect the White House to submit any final agreement for their approval." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for any agreement to be in the form of a treaty.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.