The Grand Old Political Switch on Trade

Recently President Trump proposed a 25% hike on steel tariffs and a 10% hike on aluminum tariffs, which in a seemingly strange turn of events, is gaining support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans. Even stranger, however, is that for almost the first 120 years of the Republican Party’s existence, it was not only the traditionally Republican position to support protectionism, but also the conservative Republican position. The Democrats didn’t support “free trade” per se in that time, but they regularly backed lower tariffs as these were beneficial to farmers who gained from exporting goods and called for “tariffs for revenue only”. Tariff increases were not only opposed by Democrats but also by Congressional Populists in the 1890s and the two Socialists who served in the 1910s and 1920s. Conservatives lost power in 1910 partly because they passed the Aldrich-Payne Tariff in 1909, which under the leadership of Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) and Sen. Nelson Aldrich (R-R.I.) fell considerably short of a reduction of tariffs, with some rates falling while numerous others rose. On average, rates only fell overall by 5% (Bauer, 2016). Republicans almost universally opposed FDR’s Reciprocal Trade Act, which gave the president broad authority to negotiate trade agreements, at least partly because authority was being taken from the legislative and given to the executive. Additionally, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying organization, would regularly count protectionist votes as against the liberal position on their ratings as late as 1970. However, the post-war global market would start to change minds on trade.

In 1962, President Kennedy proposed the Trade Expansion Act, which gave the president authority to cut tariffs up to 80% and resulted in the Kennedy Round of GATT negotiations on international trade. The last-ditch effort to fight this proposal came from Rep. Noah Mason (R-Ill.), a staunch old-guard conservative, who proposed a substitute that simply extended the Reciprocal Trade Act by one year. This measure was solidly defeated on 171-253 vote. This would be the last major vote in which conservative Republicans would decidedly take a protectionist position on trade as more businesses came to see its value.

Fast forward to 1970, House Ways and Means Committee chair Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who had in the past regularly backed reducing tariffs, proposed imposing import restrictions on textiles, gaining the “reluctant” support of the Nixon Administration (Dale, 1970). When the measure passed the House on November 19, it gained the majority of Democrats and split the Republican vote. Interestingly enough, a number of staunch conservatives who backed the Mason proposal in 1962 voted against this bill. Even John Bircher Congressmen John Rousselot (R-Calif.) and John Schmitz (R-Calif.) saw fit to oppose it. This would be the first time that a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans supported trade restrictions.

By 1983, the Republican Party and President Reagan would oppose domestic auto content legislation, urgently sought for by a majority of Democrats to protect auto workers and unions against Japanese competition. The GOP has since been a party that supports trade agreements and freer trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for instance, passed the House in 1993 with Republicans voting for it 132-43 while Democrats opposed it 102-156, with the at the time obscure Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joining them in opposition. In the Senate, Democrats split 27-28, while Republicans supported 34-10. In 1993, there were still a few members serving who had voted on the Mason motion in 1962. On one hand, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), who had voted for the Mason substitute in 1962, supported NAFTA 31 years later. On the other hand, Reps. William Natcher (D-Ky.), John Dingell (D-Mich.), and Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) who opposed the Mason substitute, voted against NAFTA.

While Trump may trigger the start of a political shift, don’t hold your breath: a solid majority of Republicans were in favor of TPP in 2015 and most of the people who voted on TPP are still serving in Congress as of 2018.

P.S.: If you are researching politics, Govtrack is your friend!


Bauer, P. (16 February 2018). Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Dale, E.L. (26 June 1970). White House Asks Law to Restrict Textile Imports. The New York Times.

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“H.R. 3450 (103rd): North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act.” Govtrack.

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“To Pass H.R. 379”. Govtrack.

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These were the 1897 Dingley Tariff votes in the House and Senate, with Populists voting against.

“To Pass H.R. 11019, A Bill to Reduce the Duties on Wool and Woolen Goods.” Govtrack.

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This was the 1911 House vote on tariff reduction on wool, with Socialist Victor Berger of Wisconsin voting in favor, joining nearly all Democrats and progressive Republicans.

“To Pass H.R. 7456.” Govtrack.

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This was the 1921 House vote on the Fordney-McCumber Tariff, with Socialist Meyer London of New York voting against, along with most Democrats.

“To Pass H.R. 18970”. Govtrack.

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This was the 1970 House vote on the Nixon Administration-backed textile import restrictions bill. A majority of Democrats vote for, while the Republicans are slightly against, with many conservatives opposing.

“To Pass H.R. 1234, A Bill Establishing Domestic Content Requirements for Motor Vehicles Sold or Distributed in the United States (Motion Passed).”

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