Senators Try to Limit Trump’s Tariff Power While He Seeks More
(Bloomberg) -- A bipartisan group of U.S. senators launched a new attempt to curtail Donald Trump’s power to impose tariffs amid an escalating campaign by business groups to force congressional action and the president’s own bid for greater authority.
Trump, who has proclaimed himself “Tariff Man,” has imposed new duties on more than $300 billion in U.S. imports over the past year and threatened more to come on cars, parts and Chinese goods if negotiations now underway don’t result in a deal before March 1.
During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president also called for Congress to pass the Reciprocal Trade Act, which would give him new powers to impose tariffs, though his bid for that additional authority is facing an uphill battle.
“This is not a good path to go down,” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a critic of Trump’s tariffs.
In another sign of that resistance in Congress, a bipartisan group led by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio on Wednesday introduced a bill that would limit the president’s ability to use an arcane national security statute Trump employed last year to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum, prompting retaliation from other countries.
The Trump administration insists national security includes economic security and that its use of Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Act has been justified. It also has raised the possibility of using it again. The Commerce Department is facing a Feb. 17 deadline to present Trump with recommendations in its 232 investigation into U.S. auto imports that Trump has threatened to use to impose tariffs of as much as 25 percent on imported cars.
Portman told Bloomberg Television that he and Senate co-sponsors including Alabama Democrat Doug Jones, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein were eager to limit the president’s powers “so it’s truly for instances of genuine national security.’’
Going ahead with auto tariffs opposed by U.S. car-makers such as General Motors Co. and foreign firms like BMW AG and Volkswagen AG that have plants in the U.S. “would be a real problem for American consumers,’’ Portman said.
The Portman legislation, with a companion bill in the House, joins similar bipartisan, bicameral measures introduced by Toomey and others last week. But both are likely to face opposition from Trump.
Toomey said reining in Trump’s tariff powers also has strong backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and dozens of other trade associations. “There’s clearly a lot of momentum, but only time will tell whether it’s enough to get over the goal line.”
While congressional angst about the president’s trade wars continues to ratchet up, the odds of action to curtail the president’s authority to impose national security tariffs remain slim.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, told reporters that even if legislation passes, he doesn’t think it would do so with enough margin to override a presidential veto. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also hasn’t given any indication he will put any bill on the Senate floor even though he has been sympathetic to the trade concerns of his flock.
Trump needs Congress, however, to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement that he wants to replace the two-decades-old Nafta and doing so could require giving concessions to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other key players to win enough votes.
Democrats aren’t unified on the issue, meaning changes on trade policy could split the party’s numerous presidential contenders, who may have to choose between opposing Trump and supporting industries that could be crucial to winning swing states in 2020.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is considering a presidential run, has built his career in part on being a trade hawk and led a fight last year on the Senate floor to protect presidential trade powers. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has also urged Trump to stick to his guns on China in particular.
But the pressure from the business community for Congress to act has been growing with U.S. companies and farmers descending on Washington this week to lobby against Trump’s tariffs.
In a report on Wednesday, a coalition of business and agricultural groups lobbying against Trump’s duties argued the president’s trade wars were placing a steep cost on the U.S.
Tariffs Hurt the Heartland’s study calculated the impact if duties on some $200 billion in Chinese goods increase to 25 percent on March 1, which Trump has threatened if he doesn’t strike a deal with China. Those duties, coupled with tariffs in place and retaliation by other countries, would lead to the loss of almost a million American jobs and cost the average family of four $767 a year, according to the study.
If Trump went ahead with auto and other threatened tariffs alongside those already in place, the average family would pay almost $2,400 more a year in higher costs and eight jobs would be lost for each one created, the study found.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.