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Lawmakers Considering Various Options to Limit Presidential Tariff Authority

In his State of the Union address, President Trump asked Congress for greater tariff authority under the proposed Reciprocal Trade Act (H.R. 764). U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on 6 February published an opinion piece in Fox Business advocating for this legislation. In that piece, Ross decried World Trade Organisation rules on bound tariff rates, noting that “this patently unfair situation must be corrected” and “the President must have the tools to ensure that our workers and businesses are treated fairly and reciprocally.”

However, two bills recently introduced by Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee are seeking to limit – rather than expand – presidential tariff authority, especially under the national security basis of Section 232 that was used to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium. As previously reported, Sen. Pat Toomey (Republican-Pennsylvania) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (Republican-Wisconsin) introduced the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act (S. 287 and H.R. 940) on 31 January, while Sen. Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) introduced the Trade Security Act on 6 February.

Portman serves alongside Toomey as a member of the Senate Finance Committee’s Republican majority but his bill takes a somewhat different approach. It provides for disapproval motions of Section 232 actions by Congress but does not require congressional approval before tariff actions can go into effect, as required under the Toomey bill. In addition, Portman’s bill would apply only to future Section 232 investigations, whereas Toomey’s legislation would review all Section 232 actions taken in the previous four years. Portman observed in a statement that his bi-partisan legislation “preserves this trade tool while properly placing the national security designation at the Department of Defense and expanding the role of Congress in the process.” He added that as a former USTR “I know that misusing our trade tools not only hurts our exports and our manufacturers, but also our consumers, so I urge my colleagues to support this bipartisan legislation.”

Rep. Kind is the lead proponent of Portman’s bill in the House and also figures as a co-sponsor of Rep. Gallagher’s legislation. Kind is a former chairman of the New Democrat movement within the House of Representatives. The New Democrat website describes their members as “especially identified with policies to promote innovation, technology and trade, as well as a pragmatic brand of lawmaking that seeks bipartisanship where possible.”

When asked about his decision to support both bills, Rep. Kind said he was trying to “draw attention” to the tariff issue “with members on both sides.” He noted that both bills would transfer more Section 232 authority to the Defense Department and give more authority to Congress. Asked if he thought the bills would compete with each other, Kind said that “we are getting a sense that the Senate may be more inclined to pursue Portman’s bill than Toomey’s.” He also suggested that a hearing be held to consider both bills in an effort to address the issue on a bi-partisan basis, “get feedback and pursue what’s politically doable but also what makes sense.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa) “supports some of the ideas being discussed by members of the committee but he hasn't endorsed any particular bill,” according to a statement from his office. Grassley has said, however, that he opposes the Reciprocal Trade Act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, supports both the Toomey and Portman bills. On 6 February it sent a letter to members of Congress urging them to co-sponsor the Trade Security Act and previously sent a letter to Capitol Hill backing the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act. Prospects for both bills remain uncertain, since they may face a veto from President Trump even if passed by both chambers of Congress.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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