The Trump administration recently announced plans to impose a 25 percent tariff on all steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on all aluminum imports. For his part, Trump framed this as keeping his many campaign promises to get tough on international trade, which he has frequently claimed was disadvantageous to the United States.

It sets up a showdown between his administration — which believes the U.S. trade deficit is dangerous — and congressional Republicans, who have historically supported free trade and opposed protectionist measures like tariffs.

Now, it’s important to realize that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All it means is that the country as a whole imports more than it exports. This is happening at the same time that the economy as a whole is booming, the jobless rate is at near record lows, and the stock market seems to keep going up.

Running a trade deficit isn’t necessarily an indicator of a poor economy in and of itself. While the United States has a huge trade deficit, Venezuela has a trade surplus. This doesn’t mean that Venezuela is doing better economically than the United States; it simply means that they send more goods overseas than they buy. That can be a sign that you’re a wealthy country that exports a lot of materials, such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or that you’re a struggling country that can’t afford to buy much but has a few exports, such as Botswana or Namibia.

Similarly, the United States isn’t the only prosperous country with a trade deficit: England, Spain, Italy, Canada, and Australia also import more than they export.

Trump may have a point that the trade deficit hurts U.S. manufacturing, especially the steel and aluminum industries. If those materials are cheaper to buy overseas, then companies that need to manufacturer goods out of them are less likely to buy U.S. materials.


On the flip side, imposing these tariffs, though it may help domestic steel and aluminum manufacturers, will raise the cost of everything made out of those products, from cars to computers to soda cans to iPhones. That will reduce the number of goods sold by American companies and increase the cost of living for many Americans, without helping them if they don’t work in the right industry.

So, while the tariffs could be good for certain companies and industries, they could still be damaging to our economy as a whole.

Trump’s decision to impose these tariffs — if, indeed, he actually goes through with it — would seem to mark the first real example of his populist rhetoric being turned into policy that directly contravenes Republican orthodoxy.

Republicans on Capitol Hill were at least saying the right things last week by criticizing the tariffs, from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

Fortunately, Republicans in Congress don’t have to simply go along with Trump’s plan.

Constitutionally, imposing tariffs — like the decision to go to war — is a power assigned to Congress that has been delegated to the executive branch of late. Republican leadership could act to reverse that, overturning Trump’s decision to impose the tariffs. This would be an excellent chance for Congress to reassert its constitutionally granted authority in an area that should never have been surrendered to the White House.


Doing so would come with both rewards and risks.

It could prove to independents and conservatives that Republican leadership won’t simply kowtow to Trump’s every whim. That would be heartening to see, as it would prove that Republicans won’t accept bad policies that fly in the face of conservative principles simply because Trump decides to embrace them. Indeed, it would show that Republican leadership still has some principles and is willing to put country over party when push comes to shove.

However, it also risks alienating Trump’s still-dedicated base. The midterm elections look increasingly challenging for Republicans, and the GOP may need to turn out Trump’s most fervent devotees in massive numbers to even have the hope of averting a wipeout. That will be challenging if his supporters view congressional Republicans as insufficiently loyal to the president.

Of course, being successful in the midterms may also be difficult for the GOP if the imposition of tariffs ignites a trade war that damages the economy. The best thing for Republicans would be if Trump backs down from his tariff threats, or if they don’t do much economic damage — but counting on either is a huge gamble.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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