President Trump can only negotiate trade deals; collecting duties is up to Congress.
Basically every free-market economist agrees that tariffs inevitably serve as a tax on the issuing country’s consumers. Undeterred, President Trump has continued to threaten a twenty percent tariff on imports from Mexico, and has hinted that similar options could be on the table for other countries that we are “losing” to in his eyes. Unfortunately, Trump can accomplish some of this economically masochistic policy on his own, without Congress.
As Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah (A, 100%) laid out in a recent Forbes op-ed, Congress has given away a great deal of its authority on trade policy. Although the president is given the authority to negotiate treaties and agreements with foreign nations, the Constitution empowers Congress alone to collect revenues through trade duties and tariffs. Senator Lee explains:
In keeping with his Article 1 project, dedicated to restoring the Congress’ constitutional power relative to the other branches of government, Lee has introduced the Global Trade Accountability Act, S. 177. This bill simply requires the president to submit any proposed unilateral duty or tariff to Congress for a vote, returning the final authority back to Congress where it belongs. To do this, the bill has to amend a laundry list of previous administration going back over half a century, providing a startling reminder of how long the Congress has been willingly signing its duties over to an increasingly imperial presidency.
Of course, Trump may not be inclined to sign a bill that would limit his ability to advance one of his signature policy initiatives — to “make Mexico pay for the wall” he intends to build on the border. In a sane world, though, Democrats and Republicans alike ought to see the value of restoring Congress’ full constitutional power as the primary lawmaking body in our government. More pragmatically, they ought to be able to see the value in preventing a hasty, ill-conceived trade war with America’s third-largest trading partner.
Bills such as this Global Trade Accountability Act, the REINS Act, the Separation of Powers Restoration Act (another Mike Lee initiative), and other efforts to restore Congress’ primacy ought to be able to pass even over a presidential veto. For various reasons, I’m less than optimistic that such a bi-partisan effort to weaken the presidency is likely, even under President Trump, but the attempt is certainly one worth making.