The surest sign that Congress won’t pass legislation nullifying the steel and aluminum tariffs announced by President Trump on Thursday is that Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake is the one introducing it.
If Flake is leading the charge, that means the congressional Republicans who matter, and who care about maintaining a good relationship with the president, are too scared. Not too scared to criticize the decision—most of the top Republican players in Congress have voiced their opposition—but too scared to use powers granted to them by Article I to reverse it. For now, congressional Republicans only seem interested in continuing their strategy of constantly calling Trump and politely asking him to “tailor” the tariffs until there’s not much left.
The politeness strategy, which consists of congratulating him on his brilliant job of sticking it to the cheaters and then suggesting that he limit the tariffs to cheaters, hasn’t been entirely unproductive. It’s just resulted in a more confounding, Swiss cheese policy. Canada and Mexico will be exempt in the near term, Trump said, though that could all change if they fail to produce a deal renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. As for our many other steel-producing allies, such as the European Union, the proclamation says they are “welcome to discuss with the United States” alternative arrangements. How kind. The duties are scheduled to go into effect in 15 days.
Republicans on the Hill intend to use that language allowing other countries to chitchat with Uncle Sam as their opening for watering the policy down, one by one if necessary. Both Rep. Kevin Brady, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dave Reichert said in statements that the Canada and Mexico exemptions were a “good first step” and that they would “continue to work with the Administration to narrow the application of these tariffs through the exclusion process.” Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said much the same.
No Republican congressional leaders would dare say a word about passing legislation to stop the policy they deem so catastrophic to America and the global economy. Brady, who leads the committee of jurisdiction, won’t come anywhere near touching the subject of legislation. Rep. Mark Meadows, the conservative chairman of the Freedom Caucus who’s close with the president, said earlier in the week that there was “zero” chance legislation would emerge, even though he believes that Congress has delegated too much of its authority on trade policy over the years. He suggested the “appetite” wasn’t there. Which appetite? The appetite to go over the president.
That leaves it to a retiring Trump antagonist like Flake, whose attachment to various bipartisan immigration deals played a part in turning the president against them, to lead the process of gathering veto-proof majorities to nullify these tariffs. Utah Sen. Mike Lee introduced legislation last year submitting unilateral trade actions to congressional approval. It has zero co-sponsors.
It’s not happening. If the administration fails to real a deal with Mexico and Canada and the president chooses to tear up NAFTA, though? Then we can talk more realistically about the likelihood of veto-proof legislation.