If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase ‘don’t take any wooden nickels,’ that’s probably because you weren’t born around 1912 and your name isn’t Mildred or Milton. It’s an old expression from the 1920’s and 1930’s meaning ‘don’t do anything stupid.’
On Wednesday, several Senators took that advice and did something highly unusual. They introduced legislation to actually check another branch of government and expand Congress’s legislative authority. It’s so brazenly sensible that actually seeing it happen is jarring.
Last week, we discussed how our federal government is seemingly afflicted by a debilitating case of the ‘dumbs.’ This week, it appears that at least a handful of Senators are starting to have their fever break—at least when it comes to the issue of tariffs.
Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced the Trade Security Act to modify Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which is the section currently being used by the Administration to levy tariffs on the European Union, China, Canada, and Mexico.
These tariffs are already raising the costs of goods for Americans, including a recent announcement by Coca-Cola that they’re raising the cost of their carbonated drinks due to the 10 percent tariff enacted on aluminum. Construction materials also had their sharpest increase in eight years due to the tariffs enacted on steel and lumber, which has already increased some home prices by nearly $9,000 in some areas of the country.
The White House is threatening to ratchet things up with another 25 percent tariff (i.e. tax) on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports—potentially including another round on steel and aluminum as well as items like dog food, beauty products, and baseball gloves.
This ought to pair nicely with a $21 trillion (and rising!) national debt—nearly a third of which is held by the very entities we’re now scrapping for a trade war with.
This is all very exciting news for someone like myself, who has been absolutely clamoring to know one’s onions when it comes to what life was like for my great grandparents during the era of breadlines, the Dust Bowl, and Black Tuesday.
The Trade Security Act introduced on Wednesday would do two critically important things to pump the brakes on the executive branch’s unilateral imposition of tariffs threatening to turn our economy into a jalopy. First, it would expand the existing process by which Congress can disapprove of tariffs to all products in Section 232. Under current law, Congress can only nix tariffs when the president utilizes Section 232 to levy tariffs on oil imports.
Second, the bill would require the Department of Defense to make national security threat determinations for imports of products as opposed to the Department of Commerce. It would then require DOD to send the report to the President, who would then have to direct the Secretary of Commerce to determine how to respond to the ‘threat.’
If the President chooses to implement tariffs following this new procedure, Congress can still pass a resolution of disapproval that would nullify them if the resolution is passed by both Houses.
The problem, of course, is that Congress should have never delegated its authority to the executive branch when it comes to the issue of tariffs. Now, as the current administration puts its trade war pants on for a nostalgic jitterbug with Depression-era policy, Congress is having to try to claw back some of its rightful Article I power that it outsourced decades ago.
This isn’t the only area that Congress could and should begin reasserting its authority over. Legislation to check the Executive Branch on regulations or to push back on rogue courts are all things that Congress can and arguably should do to restore balance back to the people’s body.
The fact that a bipartisan trio of Senators has introduced legislation to begin doing that is just nifty. Kudos to them for taking a strong first step. It should be noted, however, that the bill could be a lot more aggressive. The last paragraph makes an exception to Congress’ expanded disapproval process that prevents Congress from disapproving of the tariffs levied on March 8, 2018 on steel and aluminum.
Congress pre-negotiating with themselves before having a floor vote is rarely a good idea. Legislation tends to get watered down after it’s introduced. Therefore, it’s usually a good idea to begin with your strongest hand on the policy.
With the Senate ostensibly remaining in session for a significant chunk of August, pressure could be exerted to acquire additional cosponsors from both sides of the aisle and to have Senate leadership bring the Trade Security Act up for a vote.
If that were to happen, to use more popular expressions from the 1920’s, I’d probably blow my wig in excitement even if it did turn out to just be a trip for biscuits.