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Opinion: Congress needs to have a vote on tariffs

Tariffs are taxes by another name. Sen. Michael Bennet recently had it right: “This is a tax on our workers, this is a tax on our farmers, this is a tax on our ranchers.”

Last year, he introduced legislation to give Congress the opportunity to vote on reversing the tariffs placed on steel and aluminum imports originating from Canada, Mexico and most other countries and rein in the executive branch’s authority on tariffs.

Jesse Mallory

Congress didn’t act on Sen. Bennet’s proposal or another like it introduced by a Republican.

In Washington, the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, too, is working on a proposal to restore congressional authority when it comes to imposing import tariffs.

Arbitrary tariff increases that disrupt supply chains and put U.S. jobs at risk are not the way trade policy ought to be conducted — and they highlight the need for Congress to play a larger role on tariffs.

The trade war was launched with a questionable use of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, when the administration cited national security concerns to impose the tariffs on steel and aluminum. Those tariffs were in place for more than a year before they were partially waived by revoking them for Canada and Mexico. Section 232 tariffs applied to the rest of the world continue to harm the U.S. economy.

Citing Section 232 was dubious because there is no shortage of steel and the Pentagon uses only about 3% of U.S. steel production. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

This unjustified use of a national security provision, along with the other U.S. tariffs imposed and the tariffs that other countries have put in place in retaliation are taking their toll on our state.

In Colorado, we import more than $13.5 billion in goods and services a year, and export around $8 billion, accounting for about 6% of our state GDP. Our state has nearly 6,000 exporters, most of them small businesses. Every import that becomes more expensive because of a U.S. tariff and every export that can’t be sold because of another country’s retaliation harms these businesses and their workers, and consumers also pay in the form of higher prices and fewer choices.  

So, no matter how you slice it, tariffs are taxes paid by businesses and consumers. But unlike taxes, which are voted on by Congress, the power to impose and increase tariffs has been ceded to the executive branch.

We’ve seen the results of this abdication of responsibility. What we need to see now is Congress reclaiming its constitutional authority.

In June, as the president threatened to impose new 5% tariffs across the board on Mexican imports, Sen. Bennet called for the Senate to vote on any new or increased import restrictions, in keeping with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.”

He observed that while the president might use his veto to defeat any such effort, that’s no excuse for Congress not to make the effort.

“I think if there is that veto-proof majority, we should take a vote. We should take a vote anyway. Let’s see where people stand on this,” Sen. Bennet said.

That’s exactly what Congress should do.

Jesse Mallory is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado.