By Jon Healey
Los Angeles Times
A noxious legislative proposal leaked out of the White House recently, and for once the name matched the stink the bill would raise: the U.S. Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act, or less delicately, the U.S. FART Act.
Axios reported Sunday that it had obtained a copy of the five-page draft bill, which would empower the president to raise tariffs unilaterally on any country that imposes “significantly” higher tariffs or other barriers to U.S. goods than the United States imposes on its goods. The measure would violate key World Trade Organization rules that the United States has committed to — and that Trump has disparaged as bad for Americans.
The irony here is that the WTO was created to resolve the sort of dispute that Trump would rather settle with tariffs — a tax on imports that raises the price of goods here in the United States and that encourages retaliation by foreign companies on exported U.S. products.
You may insert your joke here about the title of the bill; Twitter has been doing plenty of that. The less humorous lesson is that it epitomizes President Trump’s approach to governing: It would lay waste to decades of U.S. policy, undermine a global institution the U.S. helped create, concentrate governmental power in the White House and give the president a new weapon to wield against the rest of the world.
This time the issue happens to be trade, where the status quo is admittedly far from perfect. After many rounds of negotiations over several decades, the United States — the foremost advocate of free trade — has persuaded much of the rest of the world to bring import barriers down significantly, but not to eliminate them entirely.
The U.S. approach has generally been to approach trade deals as a potential win-win. In exchange for more access to the enormous and lucrative U.S. market, it has demanded that other countries lower their barriers to U.S. goods and services while imposing higher standards on their own manufacturers (for example, by establishing wage floors and cracking down on pollution).
Trump sees things more in zero-sum terms, with winners and losers determined at the negotiating table. He craves the ability to impose tariffs as a way to browbeat other countries into changing their ways. As White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told Axios, “The current system gives the U.S. no leverage and other countries no incentive.”
Bear in mind, Trump believes the U.S. trade deficit is an indictment of U.S. trade policy, not a reflection of U.S. consumers’ buying power, low national saving rates and other macroeconomic factors. If you’re so blinkered that the trade deficit is your only yardstick, you’re naturally going to despise the trade deals that enshrine the status quo.
But members of Congress should have plenty of reasons of their own to wash their hands of the FART Act.
The brewing trade war we’re seeing now — the European Union, Canada and China all targeting American products for retaliatory tariffs, U.S. manufacturers imploring the administration to back off the threats or even shifting production overseas, and the Trump administration threatening to push levies even higher — cries out for lawmakers to pare back the authority they’ve already given the president, not to give him more. It makes sense to let the administration negotiate tariff rates as part of trade deals subject to congressional approval, but that doesn’t mean Congress should let Trump befoul the trade winds as he tries to bully our trading partners into submission.