This month, two bills have already been introduced in the House of Representatives that show the division among Republican Party members over President Donald Trump’s authority to impose tariffs. On one side of the debate, Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) introduced the Global Trade Accountability Act of 2019, which seeks to restore Congress’s constitutional authority over trade and international commerce, including approval on tariffs, duties and quotas. In a brief statement, Davidson stated that the bill seeks to “support the President’s Constitutional authority to negotiate trade deals, and restore Congressional responsibility for reinforcing, improving, and approving trade policy.” The bill would require congressional approval for any “unilateral trade action” by the president – including any of the following actions concerning the importation of an article: (i) a prohibition on the importation of the article; (ii) the imposition of or an increase in a duty applicable to the article; (iii) the imposition or tightening of a tariff-rate quota applicable to the article; (iv) the imposition or tightening of a quantitative restriction on the importation of the article; (v) the suspension, withdrawal or prevention of the application of trade agreement concessions as to the article; or (vi) any other restriction on the importation of the article. Before such trade actions could be implemented, the president would be required to submit to Congress a report providing sufficient details on the proposed trade action, and a joint resolution would have to be approved. Davidson previously introduced the bill in the last session of Congress but the legislation did not advance. It is possible, however, that there may be a shifting of congressional direction on this matter given the ongoing trade dispute with China and recent statements from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that he, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, intends to introduce legislation that would limit the president’s authority to impose tariffs.
On the other side of the debate, however, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.) has introduced the “United States Reciprocal Trade Act,” which seeks to authorize the president to implement and/or raise tariffs on imported products to match the tariffs imposed on U.S. products by other countries. Duffy stated that his bill would “give the President the tools necessary to pressure other nations to lower their tariffs and stop taking advantage of America. The goal of the U.S. Reciprocal Trade Act is NOT to raise America’s tariffs but rather to encourage the rest of the world to lower theirs.” This legislation would allow the president to take certain actions upon determining that “the rate of duty imposed by a foreign country with respect to a particular good, when imported from the United States, is significantly higher than the rate of duty imposed by the United States on that good, when imported from that country” or, similarly, when a nontariff barrier applied by a foreign country to a U.S. good imposes higher burdens than the burdens of the nontariff barrier applied by the United States to the same imported good. In comments to reporters, President Trump announced his support for the bill, stating, “All over the world, foreign countries put massive tariffs on our products while we put very few, if any, on theirs” and that this bill would “solve this problem once and for all.” He argued that the bill, if enacted, would be “an incredible tool to bring foreign countries to the negotiating table and to get them to lower their tariffs on our products and also to get rid of their trade barriers.” It has been reported, however, that Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the ranking member of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, has indicated he will not support the bill. Sen. Grassley has bluntly stated that this legislation would not go anywhere if it reached the Senate. Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, are highly unlikely to grant President Trump more executive authority to implement tariffs.
Numerous similar trade bills – on both sides of the issue – were introduced in the last session of Congress but did not progress beyond the committees to which they were assigned for consideration. With the ongoing Section 301 trade action and tariffs involving China, the Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs, and the potential for Section 232 tariffs on automobiles and auto parts, however, it appears that bipartisan congressional concerns over President Trump’s trade policies are increasing and that there may be more oversight efforts in 2019.