Rebuking Trump can be risky — so Republicans take to congressional hearings to berate administration officials on trade

  • Republicans are by and large against the trade policies that President Donald Trump has implemented over the past several months, worrying they will hurt economic gains.
  • But in a new era in which enraging the president can be politically dangerous, GOP lawmakers have taken to congressional committee hearings with White House officials to berate them and air their grievances.
  • But utilising legislative power to rein in executive authority on trade is at a standstill in Congress.

WASHINGTON – A new theme is developing on Capitol Hill.

In an era in which swearing fealty to President Donald Trump is a nonnegotiable requirement in the GOP, Republican members of Congress are utilising routine committee hearings to take out their frustrations with the administration’s trade policies.

When certain administration officials testify before Congress, lawmakers seize on the opportunity to berate the cabinet for Trump’s direct break with decades of Republican orthodoxy on trade policy.

During a hearing for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s annual testimony before the House Financial Services Committee, Republicans regularly brought up the negative effects the administration’s tariffs are having on their constituents and how they are stifling progress with the administration’s economic agenda.

“With respect to reciprocal trade agreements, just because other nations punish their consumers with tariffs, doesn’t mean we should necessarily follow suit,” Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling told Mnuchin. “Because at the end of the day, a tariff is a tax – a tax that is usually passed on to the consumer.”

Hensarling was hardly the only one to express dissatisfaction with the Trump administration’s trade policies targeting steel and aluminium, which have been met with swift retaliations from Mexican, Canadian, and European trading partners.

Later in the hearing, Mnuchin said he “couldn’t be happier with the economic plan we’re on.”

Across the Capitol on Tuesday, a similar hearing was taking place, where the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations tore into Manisha Singh, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

“Madame Secretary, the last time you and I were together I was speaking in favour of you to be confirmed by the United States Senate in your current position,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “I’m glad that you’re in the position. I’m sorry you gotta sell the program you’re selling today.”

‘Where’s the beef?’

Isakson then noted the 1980s catchphrase for the Wendy’s burger chain known as “Where’s the beef?” to criticise the administration’s trade strategy.

“Because that commercial, that’s the power of a good point and a good plan,” he said. “It is pretty apparent that we don’t have a state plan from a marketing or business standpoint.”

It was not the first time tariffs were a primary focus of Republicans in similar settings. Last month, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared in front of the Senate Finance Committee, he had to bear the brunt of Republicans’ biggest frustrations.

“These tariffs do not support U.S. national security,” said the committee’s chairman, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. “Instead, they harm American manufacturers, damage our economy, hurt American consumers and disrupt our relationship with long-term allies while giving China a free pass.”

Like Mnuchin, Ross pushed back by invoking national security concerns and attempting to level the playing field for Americans.

And it makes sense, Trump likes to critique lawmakers he sees on television by calling them up directly. But droll hearings about financial services and American trade policy are rarely televised. The hearings are an open venue where Republicans can hammer in points about why they believes tariffs will hurt otherwise stellar economic gains without directly angering Trump.

The Republicans’ forums for airing grievances will continue, as little action will even be considered to rein in executive power on trade.

The Senate held a non-binding “test vote” to limit Trump’s trade authority on Wednesday, which passed 88-11. While seen as a snub at the White House, not much is likely to come of it.

In the House, Republican leaders are still avoiding calls for flexing their muscles and rebuking Trump on trade.

When asked about the Senate trade authority legislation on Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Yeah, I don’t want to hamstring the president’s negotiating tactics.”

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