Republicans in Congress Will Cave to Trump on Tariffs
(Bloomberg View) -- A group of 107 Republican congressmen wrote a letter to President Donald Trump urging him not to go ahead with tariffs on imported steel and aluminum products. It is the biggest break in Republican unity during the Trump administration so far. Even Senator Tom Cotton, a reliable ally of the president, made the case against the tariffs. But will the congressmen’s talk be followed by action to undo the order the president signed on Thursday afternoon?
Almost certainly not. A rational calculation of their political interests will lead them to surrender to Trump, just as it always does.
The congressmen are sincere in their opposition to Trump’s tariffs, and they’re right. Their defenders have been unable to mount any coherent defense of them. They will inflict some damage on industries that use steel and aluminum, which employ more people and contribute more to the economy than the steel and aluminum industries themselves. They threaten, given Trump’s predilections, to undermine the open trading system that has contributed to American and global prosperity since World War II.
The Republican lawmakers are right, too, to wonder if it was wise for Congress to give the president so much power to set tariffs. The conservative Washington Examiner, editorializing against the tariffs, notes that this delegation was “part of a disturbing trend of Congress handing excessive power over to the president.” It recommends that Congress try to wrest back that authority by passing Senator Mike Lee’s Global Trade Accountability Act. That bill would require congressional approval for major changes to trade policy. Senator Jeff Flake is proposing similar legislative action.
Turning a bill of that type into law would accomplish three good ends: stopping an economically destructive policy; promoting a healthier balance between the legislative and executive branches; and putting some distance between the Republican Party and Trump.
But the practical obstacles to enactment are formidable. Trump would surely veto any legislation to reduce his discretion over trade policy. Free traders would need the support of 290 representatives and 67 senators to override a veto.
It has happened before. In 1980, Congress stopped an oil-import tax President Jimmy Carter sought, overriding his veto. But America had less tribal partisanship back then. Republican voters already trust Trump more than they trust congressional Republicans. They have already turned hard against free trade because Trump is their leader. How much more would they turn against it if support for it were tied to denying Trump some of the longstanding powers of the presidency?
Democratic voters have in recent years become more favorable toward free trade, as has the public in general. But congressional Democrats are not unified against the tariffs. Some Rust Belt Democrats back them. And to the extent Democrats were able to unite against Trump’s tariffs, their very opposition would make Republican voters and congressmen more inclined to back the president.
Josh Barro, an opponent of the tariffs, has written that they put congressional Republicans in a bind. They can acquiesce to Trump’s tariffs, even though many of their donors hate them and they will hurt some of the GOP lawmakers' constituents, and create political opportunities for the Democrats. (They can say, accurately, that Trump is raising the price of a can of beer.) Or the Republicans can try to pass legislation to stop the president. In that case they would probably lose, earn the enmity of some Republican voters, and possibly shift the party even further in the wrong direction.
Facing these unappealing alternatives, a lot of Republican congressmen will therefore try to duck this choice. They will issue letters rather than legislation, and hope they can avoid blame for any negative consequences of the tariffs while also avoiding picking a fight with Trump over them. They will push for Trump to expand the exemptions he has already included in his tariffs. Republican leaders in Congress, meanwhile, know full well that their troops do not want a battle, and so they are not doing anything to rally them for one.
The Republican congressmen against Trump’s tariffs have the better of the argument. But their political position is weak, and they know it. So does President Trump.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.