Trump’s “Trade Aid” Takes Road to Serfdom Paved by Congress

Thus, Trump was free to break the mold. Prior administrations had exercised these statutory powers intermittently, but on a drastically reduced scope and scale. As noted above, past presidents imposed “national security” tariffs six times since 1962, and only for petroleum imports. Historically, discretionary farm aid addressed natural disasters; here, it’s being used as a palliative for a Trump‐​made disaster.

You’d imagine that Congress would be outraged, right? Lawmakers are the clear losers. The president is issuing sweeping economic policies that, in practice, are indistinguishable from laws passed by Congress pursuant to the legislature’s core constitutional powers. And Trump is doing so in a manner that clearly conflicts with Congress’s intent. After all, if there’s no “national security” threat, then the president’s tariffs are beyond the law, and the “trade aid” is superfluous. Countenanced with so many affronts, Congress should be steamed. In prior[13] posts[14], I explained how Congresses from the mid‐​Twentieth Century never would have stood for these sorts of shenanigans.

And yet, powerbrokers in the contemporary Congress have responded by … joining in!

For example, Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley told reporters[15] he would apply for “trade aid” to help his Iowa farm. And Rep. Jim Costa, Chair of the House Agriculture Livestock and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee, issued a press release[16] bemoaning “the troubling possibility that … the fruit and vegetable crops produced in Central California will receive a different and possibly reduced level of aid.” From the looks of this release, Rep. Costa’s primary concern seems to be whether his constituents would get enough room at the trough.

If lawmakers bothered to care, there would be plenty for Congress to oversee. The tariffs, for example, are a mess, apart from their false justification. Trump reserved for his administration the power to exempt businesses from the import duties, but the process is shrouded in secrecy. The program was simply announced, and then the Commerce Department started accepting petitions. No one knows if these variances have been used to reward political allies and punish foes.

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