It's time for Congress to step in and stop Trump's trade abuses

It's time for Congress to step in and stop Trump's trade abuses

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE and his court appear to believe that the president has near absolute power over trade. After Trump ordered tariffs on imported aluminum and steel, Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossBannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ House panel, Commerce Department reach agreement on census documents China sanctions Wilbur Ross, others after US warns of doing business in Hong Kong MORE noted that Trump could alter the tariffs or impose quotas or “do anything he wishes at any point.”

Trump recently launched an investigation to limit car imports on “national security” grounds and reportedly told French President Macron that he aims to push German carmakers out of the American market altogether.


But Trump and his team are mistaken. Under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress has the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” The president’s powers over trade — including his authority to enter into trade agreements and impose tariffs — are delegated by Congress under various laws.


These congressional delegations usually place specific conditions and limitations on the president’s ability to take trade-related actions. 

Unfortunately — on issues ranging from tariffs to trade agreements — the Trump administration has repeatedly shown that it views congressional trade authorities as legal niceties to be manipulated rather than legitimate limits to be respected. It’s time for Congress to reassert its constitutional trade powers to stop Trump’s abuses. 

Trump’s unprecedented disregard for the role of Congress is particularly evident in the administration’s trade investigations under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which grants the president broad powers to “adjust” imports to prevent threats to “national security.”

Past presidents have employed this national security authority sparingly — and for sensitive products like oil and uranium. They understood that, if they didn’t use this congressionally delegated power prudently, other countries would retaliate with their own trumped-up “national security” limits on American exports, eventually undermining open rules-based trade. 

Trump, however, has no such compunctions. Instead, his trade team appears to cynically view Section 232 — and the pretext of national security — as a convenient loophole to impose the tariffs that Trump has been clamoring for since his election.

In using Section 232 to impose broadly applicable tariffs on aluminum and steel, the administration barely mentioned any national security justification, and ignored Defense Department warnings that non-targeted tariffs could harm — as they have — security relations with key allies like Canada, Europe and Japan.

The administration’s recent launch of a national security case aimed at imposing 25-percent duties on imported cars doesn’t even pass the laugh test, especially when 98 percent of U.S. car imports come from five American allies: Mexico, Canada, the European Union, Japan and South Korea.

Trump’s unilateral trade actions also risk serious harm to American workers, consumers and the broader economy.

Economists estimate that the combined effect of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs and foreign retaliation would cause the net loss of nearly 470,000 American jobs — destroying 18 jobs for each new job gained — while Trump’s threatened car tariffs would add $6,400 to the cost of a $30,000 imported car.

In addition, America’s farmers are likely to be the biggest losers in trade wars sparked by the administration’s reckless tariffs.

Congress should have the ability to weigh in on the president’s use — or abuse — of delegated trade powers in these and other cases. But, under Section 232 and other trade delegations, Congress, as a practical matter, has no short-term ability to stop presidential actions like raising tariffs or withdrawing from trade agreements.

There are bipartisan efforts in Congress to remedy this and increase congressional oversight over the president’s delegated trade powers.

The Trade Authority Protection Act introduced by Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindTwo House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms Two senior House Democrats to retire Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse MORE (D-Wis.), for example, would require a report from the president before new tariffs or other delegated actions could go into effect. It would also empower Congress to disapprove the president’s action under the process Congress currently uses to review major regulations.

This balanced proposal would enable Congress to reject egregious or destructive actions by the president under his delegated trade powers.

At the same time, it would keep 535 members of Congress from setting tariffs and negotiating trade deals — the dysfunctional process that started trade wars and deepened the Great Depression in the 1930s.

When President Kennedy signed the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, he warned that, “We cannot protect our economy by stagnating behind tariff walls.” In the years since, presidents of both parties have used their delegated trade powers in good faith to build trade alliances and promote American economic opportunity. 

In trade — as in other areas — Donald Trump believes he’s not bound by traditional norms, legal requirements or constitutional principles. Congress must make clear that he is.

Ed Gerwin is senior fellow for Trade and Global Opportunity at the Progressive Policy Institute.