Congress is too weak to prevent a trade war

Published 9:44 am Wednesday, July 18, 2018

You may not have noticed it amid the White House’s bluster on NATO this week, but Congress utterly face-planted in its effort to rein in President Donald Trump’s ever-escalating global trade war.

As The Washington Post reports, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate courageously approved a non-binding resolution that says Congress should have “a role” when the White House imposes tariffs for national security reasons.

The resolution, which came after retiring U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., dropped his demands for a “substantive” measure constraining the president’s ability to impose tariffs, does not actually say what the role should be.

Email newsletter signup

Flake said he’d hold up filling federal circuit court vacancies until he got that vote. Then he folded like a cheap suit in exchange for that toothless language, the newspaper reported.

The ‘motion to instruct’ was so harmless that it passed on an 88-11 vote, The Post reported.

In case you missed it, the White House is using national security concerns for its slender justification for slapping punitive tariffs on steel imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union – who are actual U.S. allies.

It’s also hitting China, a geopolitical rival, with steep tariffs.

Canadian officials, including Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have each decried the White House’s heavy-handed tactics. And Canada has moved to impose punitive tariffs on American goods in retaliation.

As The Post reported, Trump is threatening to invoke that same standard to hit foreign cars, distorting the intent of the 1962 tariff law. But this White House has never been one to be deterred by such formalities.

“It’s a non-binding vote, but if we had a substantive vote, it would fail today,” Flake said. “To put members on record, 88 of them, in support of Congress having a role in determining the national security implications of [Section 232] of the tariff law is substantive.”

No it’s not. It’s a joke. And it’s an abdication of Congress’ authority.

There is an easy way for the Senate to determine what its role should be, It could stand up, exercise its power as a co-equal branch of government, and vote on tariffs imposed on national security grounds.

But it won’t.

Of course, the phenomenon is hardly new. Congress, under both parties, has been gradually surrendering its power to the White House for years now. On issues from immigration to war-making, the co-equal branch of government has only been too happy to leave the heavy lifting to the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Congress has been dropping in relative power along a descending curve of 60 years’ duration, with the rate of fall markedly increased since 1933… The fall of the American Congress seems to be correlated with a more general historical transformation toward political and social forms within which the representative assembly – the major political organism of post-Renaissance Western civilization – does not have a primary political function.”

American political theorist James Burnhan wrote those words … in 1959. The curve has only grown steeper since, conservative columnist George F. Will wrote in late 2017.

And true to form, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blocked an effort by Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Corker to close a national security loophole on the issue of trade.

Senior Republicans, who have proven spectacularly inept at standing up to the White House, are even more reluctant to do so in a mid-term election year when there’s a chance that  Democrats could flip the chamber in November.

The pointless vote (sort of) immunizes Republicans facing tough re-election races (especially in farm country) from accusations that they didn’t up stand up to the White House on polices that are potentially destructive for their home states.

The House is even worse. There, retiring Speaker Paul J. Ryan, R-Wisc., has said he has zero plans to try to rein in the White House. And Ryan opposes the tariffs.

Still, there’s almost zero downside for the White House in the face of this Congressional acquiescence. A Post poll found that, among the 15 hardest hit states, Trump’s approval rating stands at 57 percent.

And with lawmakers more concerned about self-preservation in November than their constitutional prerogatives, that’s reason enough to play along.


John Mickek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.