There has been much discussion about whether President Trump has the statutory authority to impose tariffs on products from Mexico in order to punish our southern neighbor for not stopping emigration from Central America. The just-announced tariffs are being widely seen as an inappropriate (and perhaps illegal) response to the reputed “crisis” on our southern border, as well as a supremely stupid move by a president trying to get his own recently negotiated North American trade treaty ratified.
Of course, Trump’s Mexico ploy is yet another crude attempt to use presidential tariff-making authority to bully friends and rivals alike to change their behavior to advance Trump’s own ignorant notion of American interest. Using a national-defense justification for imposing tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, for example, was ludicrous. The U.S. has adequate facilities to supply strategic metals, and it is inconceivable that the country is going to face Canada as an enemy.
To be sure, China has not always played fair in the world trade game, but Western greed has been an enabler of Chinese bad behavior. Moreover, our complaints against China are not so much about trade levies as about restrictions on American firms operating in China and theft of intellectual property. The U.S. might have pursued diplomacy as a first move rather than initiating what is rapidly becoming an alarming trade war. Trump, however, prefers bluster and brute force.
The president, who reputedly studied economics, does not understand that tariffs, although they may impose costs on nations against whose products they are levied, are paid directly by importers. Those importers are largely from the importing nation, and they usually pass on tariff costs to consumers of the importing nation.
In other words, Trump tariffs, whether on Canadian, Mexican, Chinese goods, or goods of other nations, are actually taxes on Americans. And taxes are, or should be, levies imposed by the representatives of Americans in Congress. Tariffs imposed by a president are really a form of taxation without representation, despite the fact that, in some sense, the president was elected by the American people. We do not intend to elect kings whose every action is authorized by virtue of his having been elected.
It is not President Trump’s fault that Congress has ceded certain tariff-making powers to the president. As it has in other areas, Congress has shirked its responsibilities in this area, either out of laziness, indifference, or conviction that it cannot reach consensus in a timely fashion (or, perhaps, ever). It is Congress’s fault that the president continues to be authorized to impose tariffs more or less at will.
The need to impose a tariff—a tax on the American people, remember—is almost never urgent. Why, then, should it be the president who has the ability to initiate a tariff with no warning or consultation with representatives of the American people? Whether a tariff is a foreign-policy or an economic tool, let the president make his case to the legislative branch. Trump’s national defense rationale for recent tariffs is hardly credible, and there was surely no need to impose tariffs without warning. If the need for a tariff is thought to be truly urgent, Congress should concur with that determination and act accordingly. If necessary, Congress can be called into an emergency session.
In recent years, the presidency has accumulated increasing power, largely due to Congress’s indifference or spinelessness. It is time that Congress, in rare bipartisan form, take back the power to impose tariffs from the chief executive. Doing so would be a first step toward re-establishing Congress as an effective co-equal branch of the American government instead of an extension of the administration in power. Such a step would help ensure our liberty in the coming years.