Trade Fights, Inaction Fuel Recess Anxiety for House GOP

With their majority in peril, Republicans are worried about the effects of President Trump's tariff battle and their inability to finish work on immigration or the farm bill.

Rep. David Young of Iowa
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
July 26, 2018, 8 p.m.

House Republicans want to hit the campaign trail over August to let their constituents know they’re “Better Off Now.” Yet as they left D.C. Thursday, some acknowledged that President Trump’s trade war will make it difficult to drive home their economic message.

Farmers, manufacturers, and retailers, among others, are anxious over negative economic affects of retaliatory tariffs, members said, convoluting their topline message that the economy is better because Trump signed a tax-cut package last year and because Congress has slashed scores of federal regulations.

In the absence of any certainty, said Rep. Mike Simpson, “You say, ‘We hope this all works out.’"

Rep. David Young of Iowa, who is vying to hold on to one of the most contested seats in the nation, said the tax bill and regulatory cuts are natural campaign go-tos but tariffs make it more difficult this year.

“I worry that the trade issue could thwart any goodness that has come from regulatory relief and tax relief,” Young said. “It’s a three-legged stool.”

Members are hoping to lean on a positive Friday announcement about the quarterly GDP outlook and point to Trump’s recent deal with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker not to impose further tariffs as good economic news. Yet that offers little comfort as Trump’s ongoing dispute with China affects other sectors of the economy.

Rep. Roger Williams runs a domestic-car dealership in Texas, for instance, and he said the E.U. announcement is good news for German car dealerships, but not his.

“There’s a lot I don’t know about, but I know about this stuff. This is my honey hole. The economy’s good; Trump’s a great negotiator; I trust him. But tariffs will affect my industry,” he said. He added that he hopes to tell constituents in his safe Republican district that they’re better off because they “have more money in their pocket” thanks to tax cuts.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he believes constituents are willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt, especially because they voted for him knowing full well he was promising hard-nosed trade policies.

“Part of what elected Donald Trump and part of what was the enormous surge for Bernie Sanders was the same thing, and that is people didn’t feel like they were getting fair trade,” Walden said. “People are concerned about this back-and-forth, but they’re willing to give the president an opportunity to put leverage on our trading partners and get a better deal.”

Still, in other policy areas, such as health care, immigration, and agriculture, Congress has either failed to act or is midway through its work. Notably, farmers are anxious not only about tariffs, but about the lack of a bicameral farm-bill deal so far this year.

“My message has been ... to the president, to ask him to help push leadership to get the farm bill done here before the end of the fiscal year. Because what’s happening with trade right now, any kind of certainty can help,” Young said.

Similarly, the House passed a slate of bills aimed at addressing the opioid crisis that many members hope to campaign on. Yet the Senate has yet to act. Walden said members can tell their constituents to rest assured that those bills will be taken care of on the other side of the August recess.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. The elections haven’t occurred yet. We’ll get opioids done. That’s my view: We’ve done our work in the House; obviously it’s a harder lift in the Senate,” he said. “We gave them a good starting place. They have some differences. I respect that. But together over August I’m hopeful we can find some common ground and make it an easy vote in the Senate.”

Immigration could also cause problems for some swing-district members, such as Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who is running in a toss-up district in Florida. He said he believes he can defend his position on the issues despite Congress’s failure to act on immigration or pass any bills targeting the administration’s policy of separating children from parents who cross the border illegally.

“I was one of the first to raise my voice in opposition to the policy, and we got the president to reverse that policy. That was an important step,” Curbelo said. “My district knows that when I’ve agreed with the president and he’s done things in the nation’s interest, our community's interest, I’ve supported him; when he’s been wrong, I’ve not been shy about speaking out and opposing his policies.”

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