Staff Columnist

Grassley is right; Congress must take back power over international trade

Flanked by Senator Chuck Grassley (L) and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (R), U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate about immigration at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Flanked by Senator Chuck Grassley (L) and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen (R), U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate about immigration at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is on a mission to rein in the presidency.

Iowa’s senior senator is organizing support to reclaim congressional authority over trade policy. He says legislators have misguidedly abdicated their duties over the last 80 years, making sure to clarify the problem is bigger than President Donald Trump himself.

“It’s the presidency, not the president,” Grassley said during a conference call with journalists, as reported by The Gazette’s James Q. Lynch. “Congress is at fault any time a president uses legislative power to do certain things.”

Last month, after Trump said he will impose additional tariffs on Mexican goods if our southern neighbor doesn’t crack down on unauthorized migration, Grassley said the president’s plan was “a misuse” of presidential authority, and “counter to congressional intent.”

The Trump administration has been rightfully criticized for abusing authority to wage trade wars that are unpopular with the public.

Only 39 percent of voters approve of Trump’s handling of trade policy, compared to 53 percent who disapprove, according to a Quinnipiac University National Poll released last month. Clearly, the electorate’s values are not reflected in the Trump administration’s foreign trade policies.

There are several good reasons why the legislative branch, not the executive branch, should guide international trade policy.

For one, the Constitution is clear on this subject. Article I, Section 8 requires that Congress has the power to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises” and to “regulate commerce with foreign nations.”

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Unfortunately, Congress has long delegated some of those powers to the president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has often upheld such laws. Still, even if they are constitutional, they are not necessarily good policies.

Congress is uniquely situated to write trade policy because its members are directly accountable to voters, especially in the U.S. House where elections are held every two years. Votes and floor debates are open public oversight and covered extensively by the media.

Meanwhile, executive actions are the work product of hundreds of unelected bureaucrats, deliberating out of the public’s view. Voters have little ability to discern whether those decisions are made in good faith, or whether they’re motivated by some other pretext.

Maybe you can imagine some unique situations that would require a swifter response than Congress is equipped to provide, so unilateral action by the executive is reasonable. However, that is not what is happening.

The provisions Trump uses to impose tariffs — parts of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and the Trade Act of 1974 — require the administration to hold investigations into whether trade partners have violated trade agreements or pose a threat to national security.

In some cases, those investigations can take up to 270 days, or nearly nine months. That is more than enough time for Congress to propose, debate and approve new trade restrictions if members so choose. This is not an urgent national security emergency.

It’s time for Congress to carry out its constitutional duties, and halt Trump’s trade war madness.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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