A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is pursuing legislation that would limit the ability of the U.S. president to broadly use national defense to declare tariffs.
When President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. would be enacting steep tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum to the United States, he said that he was doing so on national security grounds.
The president cited section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which gives the president the power to determine whether or not an import is threatening national security. The text of this section is broad, and includes “substantial unemployment … decrease in government revenue … displacement of any domestic products by excessive imports” as valid threats to national security.
“Steel is steel,” Trump said in his speech before signing the tariffs on March 8, “if you don’t have steel, you don’t have a country.” He also said that the U.S. steel and aluminum industries have “been ravaged” by foreign trade policies, adding that “this is only the first step.”
“Without a strong economy, you can’t have a strong national security,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said, giving the administration’s justification for the tariffs.
Under the proposed legislation, Trump, and any future president, would have to get congressional approval before invoking section 232.
“I don’t think there’s anybody on our side of the aisle that doesn’t understand that the 232 authority is being greatly abused,” Corker said, addressing reporters. “…I’m a United States senator and, you know, I have responsibilities.”
In a statement on May 24, Corker said that President Trump “abusing the authorities granted to him in Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962” was part of “a dangerous course and should be abandoned immediately.”
Corker isn’t alone on his side of the aisle. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Sen Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sponsored the bill. It was also backed by Democratic senators including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) recently proposed similar legislation, which was also backed by Toomey and Flake, as well as by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) .
Sasse has been an outspoken opponent of the tariffs.
“The President is proposing a massive tax increase on American families,” Sasse said in March when the tariffs were first announced. “You’d expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one.”
Corker admitted that even with some bipartisan support, not every senator in his party would welcome this type of a bill.
“There are people here that probably have concerns about going against the president,” he said. He added that as far as he was concerned, though, “this is the kind of thing that should pass 100 to nothing.”
Corker said that Trump called him on Wednesday to ask him not to continue with his plan to bring this bill to the Senate. Corker described the conversation as “heartfelt,” and “fairly lengthy.” According to Corker, Trump thought that this proposal “takes away his negotiating ability.”
But Corker was undeterred, and referred to this proposal as a “legislative prerogative.”