The trade war ratcheted up Friday morning as President Donald Trump slapped another $200 billion in tariffs on China.
Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania usually is in Trump’s camp on everything from judges to tax breaks. But he’s proving to be a thorn in the president’s side on trade.
Toomey said his opposition to the president’s unilateral trade war isn’t just because it’s hitting Pennsylvania manufacturers hard – but also because it’s hitting everyday shoppers.
“A lot of those folks are making consumer goods. And the price of the consumer goods goes up if the price of the inputs goes up,” Toomey said. “So it may not be quite as obvious to the consumer why the dishwasher or the washing machine or some other product that uses a lot of steal, why that price is higher than they used to be.
“But it’s real — and it’s costing consumers money.”
Toomey supports Trump’s goal of trying to stop China from stealing intellectual property, but he doesn’t like that the president’s going it alone on trade by claiming that relying on foreign supplies poses a national security risk.
He specifically wants to force the chief executive to come to Congress before imposing tariffs. Toomey’s measure would also allow Congress to go back and have the final say in all trade actions from the past four years.
“I think that has been misused, because I do not believe that our national security is threatened by the modest amounts of steel and aluminum that we import from Canada and Mexico – our closest neighbors, strongest allies and huge trading partners,” Toomey says.
But many Democrats remain torn on Trump’s trade actions.
“It’s a little bit of a crap shoot,” said freshman South Jersey U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew.
“There’s no question that I believe the president makes a good point that we’ve been treated unfairly, at times, by some other nations,” he said.
Still, Van Drew said, the president should be more methodical and not engage in a trade war via Twitter.
“I would be a little less heavy handed, but keep up the pressure. Keep up some of the actions and some of the tariffs he’s put in place. I don’t know that I would go this extra mile,” Van Drew said.
“But I’m going to be real fair — he might prove me wrong. Or he might prove me very right that we should have stayed where we were because everything was going relatively well.”
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat, isn’t as patient. As a member of the House Small Business Committee, she invited Bill Skalish, the owner of Landenberg’s Granite Tech, to testify this week on how the trade war is crushing his business. Skalish may be on the hook for more than $1.5 million in tariffs alone, and Houlahan said that’s unacceptable.
“He will no longer be able to be an ongoing concern if this doesn’t get resolved,” she said. “And even if it does get resolved, he’s caught in the cross-hairs of this.”
Houlahan supports efforts to provide more capital to small businesses paying the price of the trade war, while also trying to help them protect their intellectual property from hackers.
Why forgo allies?
Other first-term Democrats from the area remain divided. Central Jersey U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski said he wished Trump had enlisted U.S. allies in this fight.
“I think we should have taken on China a long time ago, but if you’re going to take on a powerful country that can hurt us, you need to have allies,” he said.
Malinowski, who said the World Trade Organization exists to fix these kind of disputes, said Trump’s stance would be unbeatable if he teamed up with Canada, Mexico, Japan and America’s European allies, instead of also placing tariffs on their goods.
“China would have no defense against that. If it’s just us alone they hurt us, and Americans are hurting as a result,” he said.
Toomey’s measure to put Congress back in the driver’s seat on trade and tariff issues would surely be vetoed by Trump if it made it to his desk. Still, Toomey said, the proposal is picking up some steam.
“We have actually been making some progress – it’s mostly behind the scenes but winning over support,” he said. “I think we have some modest momentum – I don’t want to overstate the case.”
Toomey’s case rests on a constitutional argument.
“It’s very unambiguous. The Constitution assigns to Congress the responsibility for setting tariff rates and managing trade with other countries, so we have abdicated that responsibility by simply punting it over to the executive,” he said.
It’s unclear if Toomey’s measure will ever get a vote in the Senate. For now, there is bipartisan opposition to the president’s waging a trade war against the world’s second most powerful economy.