Trump Has Cornered Congressional Republicans on Free Trade

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks after a Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty Images.
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks after a Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill. Photo: Getty Images.

Free-trade Republicans are up in arms about President Donald Trump’s recent actions, notably tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from key US allies like the EU, Canada and Mexico. The administration’s current investigation related to potential tariffs on cars and automobile parts imports in the name of national security have poured fuel onto the fire.

The major concern for the GOP is that President Trump’s latest trade moves could set off a trade war that would hamper the economy by undoing the boost from last year’s tax cuts. Republicans are hoping to tout a booming economy going into the midterm elections in November.

Moreover, in retaliation for America’s metal tariffs, the EU and other US trade partners have targeted iconic US products that are politically significant to the Republican leadership. For instance, tariffs on whiskey hurt Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and tariffs on motorcycles impact Harley-Davidson, which is headquartered in Wisconsin, where House Speaker Paul Ryan is from.

So far this has not been enough to rally free-trade Republicans to any meaningful action – but it’s not for a lack of options. There are several ways in which Republicans could curb the president’s trade power via legislative action and check his protectionist impulses.

The US constitution gives Congress the authority ‘to regulate commerce with foreign nations’ and ‘to lay and collect taxes [and] duties’. But over the past few decades, Congress has delegated much of its trade power to the president. The legislative branch could wrest it back now.

First, Congress could use an upcoming deadline on renewal of trade promotion authority (TPA) to prod the Trump administration. TPA allows the executive to negotiate trade agreements without congressional interference, as long as certain conditions are met, and Congress ultimately gets to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a trade deal. The president has recently requested to extend TPA, but if either chamber of Congress adopts a disapproval resolution before 1 July, it could potentially restrain Trump.

Though revoking TPA would not directly stop Trump’s imposition of tariffs, it is a point of leverage because of the ongoing renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the president’s desire to strike bilateral deals with other countries down the road.

A second, and more effective, option would be to pass legislation that would impede the president’s ability to impose tariffs. Some Republicans are pursuing this path. Most recently, on 6 June, Republican Senator Bob Corker (together with seven other Republicans and five Democrats) introduced legislation that would require congressional approval of tariffs that are invoked on the grounds of national security.

But to have any traction, both the will of the GOP leadership and the necessary votes in Congress are required. Neither is there at the moment. A two-thirds supermajority in both the House and the Senate are needed to override an inevitable veto by the president. For any chance of success, a majority of Republicans would have to get Democrats on board. But instead of drumming up support, GOP leadership is derailing efforts for legislation that would check President Trump’s tariff authority by blocking a vote.

Why aren’t Republicans reining Trump in on trade? It comes down to political reasons. With just five months to go before the midterm elections, leaders of the Republican Party want to avoid a direct confrontation with Trump over his signature issue.

The president’s trade policies  enjoy strong backing from Republican voters. A recent poll found that 56% of Republican voters support Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium (compared to only 31% of American voters on average). Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Republican voters (78%) approve of the way Donald Trump is handling trade. Thus, the average Republican voter is closer to President Trump than to the GOP’s traditional free-trade orthodoxy.

Indeed, Paul Ryan’s inability to square this circle between voter preferences and those of the GOP leadership may have been a contributing factor to his decision to retire. This week’s primary results have shown that those Republican candidates that are critical of Donald Trump and his policies are tossed out. This reinforces the president’s hold over his party.

In light of this, Republicans calculate that it is not worth to push back on trade – even if the issue has provoked more outcries from Republicans toward Trump than any of his other policies. Republicans have the power to rein in the president, they are simply choosing not to exercise it because they know most of their voters support Trump’s actions.

Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, Geoeconomics Fellow, US and the Americas.

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