Grassley looks to rein in Trump tariff powers

Source: Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 29, 2019

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is drafting legislation that would limit the president’s authority to issue tariffs by invoking national security concerns under an obscure, decades-old law.

The measure, which will be introduced within weeks, aims to impose limits on President Trump’s authority under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. Trump roiled industry and many members of Congress last year when he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports under the law, which the administration is also considering using to place similar fees on auto imports.

“The U.S. Constitution gives Congress alone the job of regulating commerce with foreign nations,” Grassley said in a statement this week announcing the push.

“During the height of the Cold War, Congress delegated sweeping power to the executive branch to adjust imports on the basis of national security,” Grassley said. “That was understandable given the era, but the benefit of time and experience has proven our Founders right in tasking Congress with authority over tariffs.

“Congress should take back some of this delegation of its Constitutional authority and rebalance trade powers between the two branches in a responsible way that doesn’t impede a president’s ability to protect America’s national security,” the statement said.

According to the statement, the measure would impose new “consultation and reporting requirements” throughout the Section 232 process.

“It would also allow Congress to weigh in on any action without stripping a president of Constitutional authority as commander-in-chief,” it said. “Specifically, any restrictions imposed by the president would be limited to a defined period of time unless extended by an Act of Congress.”

Grassley told reporters yesterday that negotiations with Democratic staff are “going very well” on the measure, which will include elements of competing proposals by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

He declined to comment on the time frame for tariff limits under consideration when asked by a reporter if there was any agreement on a 90-day or six-month limit.

“You know more than you should know,” he said. “So I don’t want to answer your question. We’re negotiating, and I don’t want to negotiate through the press.”

The steel and aluminum tariffs are also complicating completion of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — Trump’s replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement — which must be ratified by Congress to take effect.

The administration has refused to lift the tariffs during the ongoing talks, despite pressure from industry, Congress, Canada and Mexico.

An irritated Grassley said Trump and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer resisted pressure from himself and a group of unnamed senators to separate the tariffs from the USMCA push during a meeting two weeks ago.

“The whole message from the whole Senate delegation that went there is ‘We’ve got to get rid of the tariffs or nothing is going to happen,'” Grassley recounted yesterday.

Grassley also said Trump runs the risk of delaying ratification, saying Canadian officials have signaled their government is unlikely to vote for a deal until after its October elections if the tariff fight isn’t resolved before June.

“So I said to the president, ‘Don’t you think the tariffs ought to come off?'” Grassley said. The senator said that Trump responded, “No.”

House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) told reporters yesterday that GOP leadership has named members to a whip team to prepare for passage of the trade pact later this year.

Brady said he opposes both the tariffs and quotas pushed by Lighthizer — an option Grassley doesn’t like either.

“We’re going to continue to have that conversation with the White House as we push for passage of the agreement,” he said. “We can do both.”

Brady declined to take a position on Grassley’s forthcoming legislation, noting that similar bills are being drafted in the House. “Right now we’re just monitoring those efforts,” he said.