From the ratification of the Constitution to the mid-20th Century, one of the center focuses of American politics were tariffs. Although they have gained recently in attention as compared to 10-20 years ago, tariffs divided regions and parties. A neo-Confederate revisionist school of thought on the Civil War even goes as far as to claim that trade disputes were primarily responsible for the conflict. Much of Congressional debate would simply come down to what goods to raise or reduce tariffs. Southerners historically stood against high tariffs (but were not free traders per se) as they harmed cotton and tobacco exports, while Northerners supported high tariffs as they helped shield a growing American industry from foreign competition. When debates on tariff legislation occurred, the Senate would be inundated with votes on amendments to raise or cut tariffs on specific items such as pearl buttons, needles, toys, and various dyes. Regionalism often played a role in support or opposition to specific tariffs, but on final votes the trade issue would be voted on staunchly partisan lines. A pattern would emerge: Republicans get in power and raise tariffs, Democrats would get back in power and cut tariffs, and so on and so on. Finally, a reckoning came for this sort of archaic politics after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff proved that the tariff aspect of the “American System” of economics envisioned by Alexander Hamilton had run out of gas. Enter one of the greatest political game changers in American history: FDR.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, not wanting to merely enact tariff cuts that could be easily reversed when Republicans returned to power, proposed the Reciprocal Trade Act in 1934. This law vested in the executive tremendous power for negotiating trade agreements. Republicans howled at the surrendering of legislative power, but Congressional Democrats, effectively being a rubber stamp for the President’s agenda under the Speakership of longtime pol Henry Rainey of Illinois, gladly voted for this measure that would give tariff cuts more permanency. Few in the party opposed, but one of the most significant opponents was Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.), a co-founder of the Federal Reserve. Although normally a proponent of lower tariffs, he was also alarmed at the rate of growth of the power of the executive branch through the New Deal and opposed this measure as another surrender of legislative power. Although many Republicans opposed because they knew the result would be lower tariffs, Glass’s opposition stands as the most lasting in its relevance. This was only the beginning of a trend of Congress opting to surrender its power to the President. Congress surrendered authority in numerous ways, including section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which permits tariff increases in the name of national security.
In present day, we see a situation in which President Trump can unilaterally raise tariffs on our allies through a bizarre interpretation of section 232, an action practically no other political actor in the country has taken to publicly support. This is a long-run consequence of a Democratic Congress of over eighty years ago deciding to lead the way in surrendering constitutional prerogatives to the executive branch on the subject, with subsequent Democratic Congresses being all too happy to follow this trend. Had this particular proposal been required to go through legislative approval first, it wouldn’t have passed and probably wouldn’t have gotten out of committee. The question now is, will Congress try to take back some power?
Cost, J. (5 March 2018). Congress Handed to the President the Power to Level Tariffs. National Review.
Fry, J.A. (2002). Dixie looks abroad: the south and U.S. foreign relations, 1789-1973. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Golshan, T. (8 March 2018). Why Trump can raise steel tariffs without Congress. Vox.
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