WASHINGTON — Despite bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill of President Donald Trump’s tariffs, lawmakers have so far declined to take action to roll them back.
For his part, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., an outspoken critic of the administration’s trade policy, is disappointed that Congress has failed to assert itself by at least reclaiming various trade-related authorities it delegated over the years.
“It really is that the Congress doesn’t want to make hard choices,” Sasse told The World-Herald. “Most of these people just think primarily about incumbency and not primarily about the structure of the trade deals we should have.”
Sasse is one of only 15 co-sponsors of a bill introduced by a pair of Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, that would require congressional approval for certain tariffs.
Trump was on the road Thursday touting his trade policies at a roundtable in Iowa and at a rally in Illinois. He talked up his meeting this week with the president of the European Commission, saying the Europeans agreed to buy more American soybeans.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he welcomes news of the “emerging trade deal” with the European Union, but farmers continue to be anxious about the overall trade situation.
“I hope President Trump’s trip to Iowa gives him a sense of urgency,” Grassley said. “Farmers are depending on the president for a speedy resolution. I’ll continue to press this point to the administration on all fronts.”
Democrats running for office are pressing the idea that their opponents haven’t been aggressive in forcing the administration to change its trade policy.
In Nebraska, Democrat Jane Raybould, for example, has made trade a central theme of her campaign and faulted her opponent, GOP Sen. Deb Fischer, for not co-sponsoring the Corker-Toomey legislation that Sasse supports.
Fischer campaign spokesman Roderick Patton said in a statement that the senator backed a farm bill amendment to restrict the president’s tariff authority.
That amendment was offered by Corker and Toomey but blocked from consideration by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Democrats also have suggested that if Republicans really want to head off the president’s tariffs and save farmers from the financial pain they’re feeling, they could do so by holding up his legislative priorities or blocking judicial nominees.
Blocking his latest pick for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, would certainly get Trump’s attention, but Republicans have rejected such moves.
Fischer spokesman Patton listed a series of bills pending in the Senate and said the senator ”does not support obstructionism or holding up these priorities for Nebraskans.”
Sasse described the idea that Republican senators would block Kavanaugh’s nomination over trade as “so insane.”
“Democrats suggest because somebody dinged your car in a parking lot, what you should do is go home and set your other car on fire,” he said.
Sasse said he is a constitutional conservative serving in government for the exact purpose of fighting for people like Kavanaugh.
“And so the way I’m supposed to oppose the president on trade is by attacking the values that I believe in and that Nebraskans elected me to support and that I pledged to support?” he asked.
The Trump administration recently announced that it plans to use Depression-era powers to make direct payments to farmers and buy up surpluses to mitigate the trade fight’s financial impact. Sasse has criticized that $12 billion package, saying that farmers would prefer trade deals and that the amount involved is a small fraction of the overall trade-related damage.
Other lawmakers, however, view the aid package as an important policy option.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., compared it to assistance included in previous trade deals to help displaced workers.
Asked if Congress should be doing more to rein in Trump’s trade policies, Fortenberry said it’s a delicate balance, with the United States having suffered a trade imbalance for a long time.
It appears that the administration is more sensitive to the urgency of the situation and that the plight of farmers is at the top of the president’s mind, he said.
He also said that if the country can reposition itself as a whole on trade, that will benefit agriculture in the long run.
“This is a hard reckoning but it’s a reckoning that’s been coming for a while,” Fortenberry said.
Sasse said he talks to the president regularly — as recently as Wednesday night — making the case that while China is a bad actor, Canada, Mexico and Europe are good partners and that bilateral trade deficits are different from China’s practices of stealing intellectual property. Sasse says the way to confront China’s malfeasance is through a trans-Pacific coalition.
Sasse gave the president credit for listening to trade proponents, even if he’s not going to completely embrace Sasse’s approach in the immediate future.
“I think his view about the way to engage Europe has changed in a few notable ways the last three weeks,” Sasse said.
Trump and the EU took a mutual step back this week from escalating their trade disputes and pledged to work through differences in future negotiations.
In the meantime, while Congress lacks the will to act, Sasse said it’s important for leaders to make the case to the American people about the importance of trade.
“Nebraskans get it, but I think the nation is drifting on trade,” Sasse said. “And I think that’s calamitous.”