Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio needs to be on the Senate Finance Committee for the good of the country. Even if Senator McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, isn’t convinced about the good of the country part, he should see that not assigning Vance to Finance will surely doom Republicans to minority status in the Senate.
Senate Finance is Key To Tariff Policy
Senate Finance, along with the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives, jointly legislate tax and tariff policy in Congress.
Republican Leadership Has Appointed Fervent ‘Free Trade’ Disciples to Key Trade Committees
For decades, Republican party leaders have appointed anti-tariff zealots to lead both committees. That remained the case in the 117th Congress, which began on January 3, 2021, and ends on January 3, 2023.
The senior (ranking) Republican on Senate Finance for the 117th was Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho. Senator Crapo hates tariffs so much that he spent 2022 leading efforts to facilitate imports from China by cutting tariffs on Made-in-China merchandise, which would worsen America’s already dangerous dependence. (See updates from Jan. 2022, April 2022, and May 2022). Fortunately, his efforts to date have failed.
While Senator Crapo is sticking around, there are three other Republicans on Senate Finance that are retiring: Senators Portman (Ohio), Toomey (Pennsylvania), and Sasse (Nebraska).
Senators Toomey and Sasse were abysmal on tariff policy and will not be missed. Senator Portman of Ohio improved since being a ‘free trader’ earlier in his career. While Senator Crapo fought to eliminate tariffs on China in May 2022, Senator Portman urged President Biden to keep them. That letter was also signed by Senator Brown, a Democrat who has represented Ohio on Senate Finance since the 113th Congress. Senator Brown knows that “our workers, small businesses, and manufacturers have paid a steep price for an outdated trade agenda“, and he deserves recognition for never having fallen for ‘free trade’ fairy tales.
Senator J.D. Vance Went Beyond ‘Tough on Trade’ Rhetoric’, Called for Tariffs On Their Own Merit
J.D. Vance had a formidable opponent in Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan. Like Sherrod Brown, Rep. Ryan always understood that ‘free trade’ agreements were losers that only resulted in further deindustrialization. Rep. Ryan had a consistent track record in voting against new tariff cuts, going back to his vote against the U.S.-Chile tariff cuts of 2003. At a time when ‘free trade’ fanaticism was at its most shrill, Rep. Ryan was clear eyed.
Despite his opponent’s strong record, J.D. Vance distinguished himself in the campaign by smashing through the rules-based trade paradigm prison. Vance does not believe Congress should wait around for investigations of foreign wrongdoing before imposing tariffs. Vance rejects the self-defeating trap of recognizing that trade agreements are bad, yet simultaneously predicating calls for tariffs due to violations of those same flawed agreements. During his campaign, Vance called on Congress to “take the first step in protecting American jobs and industry by passing legislation that would make U.S. tariffs on foreign imports more permanent and across the board.” This is the winning message more legislators should articulate.
Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance says the U.S. needs a "committed national policy of tariffs" to "rebuild the industrial heartland of America." https://t.co/pDEEf1ePb4
— Breitbart News (@BreitbartNews) November 7, 2022
“Tough on trade” rhetoric simply doesn’t cut it anymore. After all, what are you promising? More WTO lawsuits? What if the judges in Geneva rule against us? Is that the end of it?
Saying you’ll be “tough on trade” accepts the shackles imposed on us by trade agreements. It accepts the notion that tariffs are only punitive tools for nations that cheat on trade agreements (typically with subsidies). Limiting tariffs to those ‘cheating’ on trade agreements is untenable. For example, a nation where workers are paid far less is not violating any trade rules; low wages are not a justifiable basis for tariffs under our trade agreements. Confining oneself to the trade agreements paradigm is self-defeating.
On his campaign’s Issues page, Vance felt no such inhibition in his call for tariffs. He specifically called for tariffs on their own merit, as necessary to rebuild America’s industrial base.
Senator Vance has good company in his office. A predecessor of his, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, saw the danger and obvious problems as America slashed away most of its tariffs between 1934 and 1944, chasing utopian fantasies of global rules-based ‘free trade’ culminating the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947. In 1943, Senator Taft assailed free-trade “utopia planners”. Deriding the concept of free trade, Senator Taft asked “How can the American work-man compete with wage rates running from one-half in England to one-twentieth in some Far Eastern countries when American machinery can be taken to any one of those countries and men taught to do excellent work in a reasonably short time?”
There's a misperception that trade folly was an 80s/90s thing.
But it was Sec. of State Cordell Hull who derailed us by slashing our #tariffs from 1934 – 1944. And then we kicked it into high gear with the 1947 GATT. Downhill ever since.
Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, from 1943: pic.twitter.com/WJTloSkwR9
— Charles Benoit 🇺🇲 (@Charles_Benoit) November 22, 2022
Senator Hawley Articulates the Political Purgatory of a GOP that Doesn’t See the Light on Tariffs
Calling for tariffs to rebuild domestic industry with a plain spoken message like Senator Taft’s is a winning formula more Republicans should embrace. Senator Hawley is asking them to. In the wake of the 2022 mid-terms, where Republicans failed to retake the Senate and narrowly retook the House, Senator Hawley made this call explicit, calling for “tariffs to foster American industry” as part of a new GOP platform.
The old party is dead. Time to start building something better https://t.co/VW7wyyfJcP
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) November 18, 2022
Senator Hawley knows his tariff message is not just the right thing to do for Americans, but also a popular position that wins elections.
In 2018, now Senator Josh Hawley defeated incumbent Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, in a non-Presidential election year. A significant accomplishment. In that Missouri campaign, a major issue was President Trump’s China tariffs, which went into effect in August, 2018. Then candidate-Hawley challenged Senator McCaskill’s opposition to President Trump’s tariffs on China. This was a bold move for Hawley, as soybeans were Missouri’s top agricultural export, and soybeans were America’s top agricultural export to China. And indeed, China cut its soybean purchases back 75%. But Hawley courageously stood firm and won election. Those China tariffs have proven wildly popular with voters, and were kept in place by the Biden Administration.
It’s difficult to tell a sitting Senator with existing assignments that they must be on Senate Finance. But as J.D. is a new Senator without current assignments, and will be replacing a Senator who had a Senate Finance committee assignment, and understands that tariffs are key to American prosperity, the call to draft him to Senate Finance comes easy.
The Florida Republican Delegation Has Embraced Tariffs and Been Richly Rewarded by Voters
Similarly, the Republican delegation from Florida has embraced tariffs much more than most Republicans, and they have been richly rewarded by voters. Senator Marco Rubio has given a high profile to critics of rules-based trade dogma. He was invited to give the inaugural Henry Clay lecture for American Compass, wherein he offered a deep dive into the false assumptions that went into free trade theory. It should be noted that Henry Clay helped create what is now the Republican Party. Clay was also the chief architect of what is known as The American System, which calls for protective tariffs and a focus on the home market, as well as federal infrastructure spending and a national bank. (Worth noting that in 1959, then-Senator John F. Kennedy led a special Senate Committee to name the five “most outstanding” Senators in the history of the Senate. That list included Henry Clay, as well as Robert Taft.)
Senator Rick Scott is another high profile critic. In his Rescue America plan, Senator Scott argues that Republicans should “terminate any trade deal that takes away American jobs.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has said that the decision to grant China “Most Favored Nation” tariff treatment “has endangered our nation’s national and economic security.”
The Republican Party Should Return To Its Roots as The Party of Tariff Protection
With the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats – as a party – proved to the American people that they care about things being made here. They did this by violating the core tenant of every trade agreement – the principle of National Treatment – by conditioning generous subsidies for cars and energy products on whether those products were made domestically. Every American in the market for residential solar or an electric vehicle will now be making the mental link: Democrats are the party that cares if things are made here.
If Republicans do not have an answer for how they’ll bring factories home, they should expect to fail again in 2024. For the time being, they still have an opportunity to get ahead of the Democratic Party, by returning to their roots and embracing tariffs for the protection of domestic industry. Note well: while ‘protection’ may have meant coddling national champions in other nations, Republicans have always embraced free market competition, and welcomed foreign investment from friendly nations. If you could build a better widget, you were welcome to invest and come build it here, behind our protective tariff wall.
Also, there’s nothing conservative about global rules-based trade. We can’t even discipline subsidies among the states, how did we ever think we could among nations? As Senator Taft recognized, this was the folly of utopian planners. Furthermore, global rules based is antagonistic. It’s not good for peaceful coexistence if nations are always accusing each other of cheating. This wasn’t a problem prior to 1934.
The Republican Party, born out of Henry Clay’s Whig Party in 1854, will be 170 years old for the 2024 Presidential Election. It’s time for the party to come home. And the immediate next step should be putting J.D. Vance on Senate Finance, along with like minded Senators, and similarly staffing Ways & Means with pro-tariff Republicans.