It’s Time for Congress To Put an End to Trump’s Tariffs

The tariffs President Trump has levied on foreign imports are bad economic policy for many reasons.

First, they are a barrier to trade, and trade benefits all trading partners. Yes, tariffs on China hurt the Chinese, but they also hurt Americans because there are gains from trade, and tariffs reduce those gains.

Second, they are a tax on American citizens, plain and simple. Tariffs raise the cost of imported goods and ultimately American consumers will pay those costs. If you argue that businesses will not pass on those costs to consumers (which will not be true in the long run), then American businesses will pay the costs.

Third, the tariffs create political frictions. Why create a hostile environment in foreign affairs, when the policies that create those hostilities are bad for everyone? Then there are the political frictions at home.

Congress should repeal all those Trump tariffs, and refuse to allow the president to impose more. The tariffs are unconstitutional, as I see it (disclaimer: I am not an attorney). Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution begins, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Section 7 begins, “All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” and Section 8 begins, “The Congress shall have power: to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises...” Nowhere in the Constitution is the power to impose taxes or tariffs listed as one of the limited and enumerated powers of the president. This seems very clear: the power to levy tariffs belongs to Congress, not to the president.

The legal justification for Trump’s tariffs comes from a series of legislative acts which appear to give the president some power to set tariffs, including the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and the International Emergency Powers Act of 1977. But these Acts and others that appear to give the president the power to impose tariffs are unconstitutional because they give the president powers that constitutionally belong to Congress.

Congress cannot pass legislation to transfer its powers to another branch of government. The Constitution was deliberately designed to preserve a separation of powers among the branches of government, and any transfer of powers should require a constitutional amendment.

Congress should repeal those Acts (which should also be challenged and reversed by the Supreme Court) and other similar Acts (there are others) that appear to give the president legislative powers. They should do it in this case because President Trump’s tariffs are harmful to Americans, but a more important reason is to reassert the separation of powers that was built into the Constitution to check and balance the powers of the three branches of government.

Throughout American history, going back to the Civil War and before, the executive branch of government has gained more power, mostly at the expense of the legislative branch, and this has often happened (as is the case with tariffs) because Congress has willingly legislated away its power to the president.

The legislative branch should reassert its power to maintain the checks and balances the American Founders intended, and taking action to reverse President Trump’s tariffs would be a good place to start.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
Posts by Randall G. Holcombe | Full Biography and Publications
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