Opinion: Sen. Stabenow, help Congress reclaim tariff authority

Annie Patnaude and Angie Setzer

As a major agricultural state, a longtime hub of manufacturing and a strategically located player in the Great Lakes Region’s steel production, Michigan has been at the center of U.S. trade debates for more than half a century.

Now one of our U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow, finds herself at the nexus of this debate — as a lawmaker from a state where trade accounts for nearly 40% of GDP, as ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and as a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks at a campaign rally Nov. 4 at IBEW Local 58 in Detroit.

Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, is working on a bipartisan proposal to increase congressional accountability over tariff policy by giving Congress a vote when the executive branch seeks to impose or increase tariffs.

Stabenow, who has called for “a more thoughtful, targeted approach” to trade policy, ought to join forces with Grassley to make it happen.

One way to get a more thoughtful, targeted approach would be for Congress to play a role as policymaker rather than simply as critic. 

Stabenow’s own record on tariffs is something of a mixed bag. She has lambasted the Administration’s approach when it sparked retaliatory tariffs that hurt Michigan farmers, but defended the Administration’s tariffs on washing machines.

Our nation was founded in part on the principle of “no taxation without representation.” Regardless of one’s broader views on trade, tariffs are taxes on the American people, and their representatives should vote on whether to increase them.

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the authority “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.” But over the decades, Congress has ceded much of that authority to the executive branch. Grassley and others are hoping to reclaim some of it.

When the duties on steel and aluminum were announced last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer warned, “This is Michigan, the state that builds things — where we make cars out of steel.” She worried that the tariffs “could hurt our workers, our industries, and provoke a trade war.”

That’s exactly what’s happened. Tariffs and the broader trade war disrupted supply chains and drove up costs for manufacturers and consumers. The retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries have taken a major toll on our state’s farmers, and the metals tariffs have driven up the costs of equipment. 

Tariffs on steel and aluminum are especially damaging because the added costs affect millions of workers downstream while lending only tepid support to the much smaller workforce involved in steel making. Steel production accounted for about 140,000 millworkers in 2015, or 0.2% of U.S. GDP that year. Manufacturers that use steel accounted for 6.5 million workers and 5.8% of GDP.

The administration launched the trade war on dubious grounds when it cited national security concerns under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose the metals tariffs. This came despite there being no shortage of steel in this country nor any great demand by the Department of Defense for steel or aluminum. 

The Section 232 duties and the administration’s other tariffs have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, yet none of them have been subject to a vote in Congress.

If Sen. Stabenow is truly seeking a more thoughtful approach on tariffs, now’s her chance to lead the way.

Annie Patnaude is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan. Angie Setzer is vice president of Grain for Citizens LLC.