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Lawmakers work to scale back the president’s trade authority as auto tariffs loom

Jessica Smith
Reporter
Lawmakers work to scale back the president’s trade authority as auto tariffs loom

As the Trump administration considers slapping tariffs on auto imports, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are trying to gain more control of trade policy.

Last year, President Trump instructed the Commerce Department to investigate whether imported vehicles and auto parts pose a threat to national security. The department is due to report its findings by February 17.

Now, bipartisan groups of lawmakers are trying to weaken the president’s ability to use national security as a reason to enact tariffs.

BICAMERAL CONGRESSIONAL TRADE AUTHORITY ACT

Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Mark Warner have introduced a bill called the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act. A bipartisan companion bill has been introduced in the House.

The bill puts the Department of Defense in charge of 232 investigations to see if a national security threat exists, instead of the Commerce Department. It would also require approval from Congress before the President can take trade action under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

“President Trump has strained our relationships with key allies and partners by abusing the authority that Congress granted him and stretching the concept of ‘national security' beyond credulity," said Senator Warner in a statement.

The bill is retroactive, meaning Congress would have to approve any Section 232 actions over the last four years -- including President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.

"Tariffs on steel and aluminum imported into the United States are taxes paid by American consumers. The imposition of these taxes, under the false pretense of national security (Section 232), is weakening our economy, threatening American jobs, and eroding our credibility with other nations. I've seen, first-hand, the damage these taxes are causing across Pennsylvania," said Senator Toomey in a statement.

THE TRADE SECURITY ACT

Republican Senator Rob Portman, who served as the United States Trade Representative from 2005-2006, has introduced a bill that takes a more moderate approach.

Portman’s bill, the Trade Security Act , would also require the Department of Defense to determine national security threats under Section 232. It would give Congress the ability to disapprove tariffs, rather than requiring Congressional approval. Unlike Toomey’s bill, Portman’s legislation is not retroactive.

Speaking to reporters, Portman said his approach will give the president the ability to act quickly if there is a true national emergency, while still increasing Congressional oversight.

“This is not about automobiles or about the Trump administration, this is broader reform I think is consistent with the original intent [of Section 232],” said Portman.

Portman told reporters he’s concerned the United States could lose its ability to use Section 232 if it misuses the statute. Plus, he says misuse leads to retaliatory tariffs that hurt American farmers, manufacturers and consumers.

“My broader view of trade is that if it’s not based on fairness, it comes back to haunt us,” said Portman.

AUTO TARIFFS COULD BE ON THE WAY

If the Commerce Department finds automotive imports present a threat, the President will have ninety days to decide what to do next. President Trump has already floated the idea of a 25% tariff on auto imports.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, spoke against auto tariffs on the senate floor this week.

“I hope the President will heed my call to forego the auto tariffs and focus on opening new markets. The U.S. auto industry is a major driver of our economy, supporting nearly 10 million American jobs and accounting for 3 percent of our GDP. Without question, any tariffs that are imposed will have a negative effect on the U.S. auto industry and our economy,” said Grassley.

Portman has also expressed concern about auto tariffs.

“I don’t know what they’re [the Commerce Department] going to report, but I do know that this [ the Trade Security Act ] is timely,” said Portman.

The senator told reporters if the Trade Security Act is signed before the President enacts tariffs, there would have to be a new report involving the Department of Defense.

Portman insists the bill is not a direct response to the Trump administration or potential auto tariffs, but says he wants to move quickly to give Congress the ability to push back.

“We are strengthening Congress’ hand and the role of Congress -- which again I think is appropriate,” said Portman. “It’s kind of hard to argue that minivans from Canada pose a national security threat.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Doug Jones, Senator Joni Ernst and others have signed on to Portman’s bill. A bipartisan companion bill has been introduced in the House.