Congressional Republicans were blindsided on Tuesday by the Trump administration’s announcement that it would provide $12 billion in assistance to farmers hurt in the trade war being waged by Donald Trump—a move that looks an awful lot like “bailing out” an economic sector suffering under poorly conceived government policy. The decision cuts so squarely against GOP orthodoxy that some Republicans could only watch and admire it.
“I wish I was a farmer,” Utah Rep. Rob Bishop told me.
He probably doesn’t, though.
Republicans in the Senate—a bloc of resolute free-traders before their political fortunes were tied to the popularity of Donald Trump—expressed a range of reactions, from anger to convoluted tepid support, to I haven’t heard about it yet. (There’s a golden window for lawmakers of about three hours following a troubling announcement when they can get away with this excuse for not commenting.)
The senators most willing to use pejoratives to describe the move were, predictably, the ones retiring in a few months. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said that farmers were “being put on welfare,” and both he and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake—who called the move “awful”—argued that what farmers want are free markets, not handouts.
The most irate reaction, though, came from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.
“This is becoming more and more like a Soviet-type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits,” he said. (Johnson recently returned from a lovely trip to Russia, so maybe this was a compliment.)
Some senators were also concerned about the precedent being set: If farmers get relief, shouldn’t others too?
“I want to know what we’re going to say to the automobile manufacturers, and the petrochemical manufacturers, and to all the other people who are being hurt by tariffs,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said. “Now you’ve got to treat everybody the same. … And if we do help them, how much is that going to cost?”
I asked him if he would call this a bailout.
“You can call it whatever you want to,” he said. “I call it $12 billion. And I call it a precedent.”
Somehow, in the midst of this total rejection of the president’s trade policy, Kennedy found a way to praise the president’s trade acumen.
“I don’t think the president intends to start a trade war,” he said. “I think he’s too smart for that. I think he understands that he only way to win a trade war is you don’t fight the damn thing.” That would seem to conflict with the president’s stated thinking on the matter: “Tariffs are the greatest!” he tweeted Tuesday morning.
Senators representing agricultural states suffering from retaliatory tariffs were generally warmer to the administration’s plan to hand money to their constituents a couple of months before the election. The defense they used was that if the administration feels it needs to temporarily pay off farmers in pursuit of a larger trade endgame—whatever that is, and however achievable it may or may not be—then the move is understandable.
“If there’s some way that” farmers can be helped “while we’re correcting a bad situation with China,” Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe said, then it “sounds good to me.” He admitted that home-state interests, rather than any broad philosophical underpinning, were behind his support.
“I have a bias towards the farmers more than some of the other” senators, Inhofe said.
The long-term fear for those representing agricultural exporters, even if they’re OK with a cash infusion for the moment, is that the trade war will linger, trading partners will seek new arrangements with other countries, markets will be lost forever, and the handouts will become permanent. Whatever endgame Trump has in mind, he needs to reach it. Soon.
“All I can say is, it can’t make up for the harm it’s done so far, on the drop in soybean prices, let alone everything else,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said. “We need results from the negotiations.”
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