Tariff Tantrums, Undermining Trade Agreements, and the End of Checks and Balances

Ideas and Issues

Louisville         In recent days alone, Trump has ended protected trade status on $5 billion in goods from India, as he did earlier with Turkey, and has given Mexico until June 10th to somehow magically end illegal immigration into the US or he will hit them with a 5% tariff across the board and keep punching until it’s at 25% if they don’t solve our problem.

Let’s just sidestep the issue of whether tariffs are good or bad for a minute in order to keep out of those weeds, and just ask the question, how in the vaunted United States of America where our system of “checks and balances” is more famous than the Bill of Rights or anything else about our system, is President Trump or for that matter any US president seemingly able at whim to impose tariffs on other countries all by himself?  While we’re scratching our heads over that question, let’s also ask what is the point of all of these trade agreements that Trump as been ripping up and demanding to be renegotiated, like NAFTA II with Canada and Mexico, if within days and months, Trump can change the deal?  Is it important that the US be seen as a good faith negotiating partner?

First things first.  The Constitution is crystal clear that the authority over taxes and tariffs is exclusively the responsibility of Congress.   That said, over the last century, Congress has been steadily ceding power to the chief executive and diluting its authority.  Nice work by Vox lists some of the ways this has happened:

  • the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917, the president can impose a tariff during a time of war. But the country doesn’t need to be at war with a specific country — just generally somewhere where the tariffs would apply.

  • The Trade Act of 1974 allows the president to implement a 15 percent tariff for 150 days if there is “an adverse impact on national security from imports.” After 150 days, the trade policy would need congressional approval.

  • There’s the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which would allow the president to implement tariffs during a national emergency.

  • Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, is a provision that gives the secretary of commerce the authority to investigate and determine the impacts of any import on the national security of the United States — and the president the power to adjust tariffs accordingly.

In short, almost any claim from the White House about national security or a national emergency is now good enough to pass muster, and the only thing that could stop that would be a unified Congress rising up to reassert its constitutional duties.  Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell would block that in the Senate in these times of polarization, which voids any notion of checks and balances and instead creates a governmental system where the President can attempt to do anything he wants, just as we have seen for more than two years, unless the courts stop him.  Since the courts are the last thin line in the checks-and-balances system, that also explains why McConnell and Trump are so determined to erase that line as well in order to create a new hyper-partisan, imperial presidency without restraints or accountability.

As for any kind of multinational agreements whether for climate change, Iran denuclearization, or trade, I guess we already know the answer to that one.  Who cares about good faith or whether or not we are a responsible negotiator?  It’s “America first,” baby, and to hell with the rest of the world.