The pressure’s building inside Congress.
Will they pass this FART? Or will they hold back, causing discomfort?
Either way, the situation stinks.
Normally this is where I’d apologize for such hacky jokes. I’m not sorry. When you write about politics for a living and somehow the stars align to place something called FART before you, you give thanks and take a big whiff.
Axios has obtained a leaked draft of a Trump administration bill — ordered by the president himself — that would declare America’s abandonment of fundamental World Trade Organization rules…
The details: The bill, titled the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act,” would give Trump unilateral power to ignore the two most basic principles of the WTO and negotiate one-on-one with any country:
1. The “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) principle that countries can’t set different tariff rates for different countries outside of free trade agreements;
2. “Bound tariff rates” — the tariff ceilings that each WTO country has already agreed to in previous negotiations.
Per Axios, the bill is unpopular within the West Wing with everyone but Peter Navarro (of course), which may explain how it got tagged as the FART Act. Some impish free-trader who worked on it may have slipped the name in there. It may also explain why the FART Act has, er, leaked. A pro-Trump source familiar with the draft bill told CNN that he thinks it was shared with Axios by opponents, to start building public opposition to it before Trump can “touch on it, message it in its most effective form. Make it his.” Supposedly POTUS was briefed on it in May but a White House spokesman insists that they’re not preparing to roll out the bill seen by Axios, saying, “Principals have not even met to review any text of legislation on reciprocal trade.” *If* the bill passed, it would amount to a declaration that the U.S. will no longer be bound by the WTO’s rules despite remaining nominally part of the organization. Trump could slap tariffs on anyone he wanted to on a whim.
But it has no hope of passing. It’s so bad and so obviously DOA that even one of Trump’s most loyal cronies felt safe taking sides against him when the Axios story broke:
WTO has its flaws, but the “United States Fair and Reciprocal Tariff Act," aka the U.S. FART Act, stinks. American consumers pay for tariffs. Time to switch tactics. https://t.co/OfyOFA1neU
— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) July 2, 2018
It’s weird that the White House would be eyeing a bill to expand presidential power over tariffs at a moment when Congress is eyeing a bill to restrict that power. That would be Bob Corker’s amendment, which would strip Trump of the “national security” tariff power he used to slap steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, among others. That’s the same bill that Jeff Flake is demanding a vote on, replete with threats to block Trump’s lower-court judicial nominations if he doesn’t get one. At last check Mitch McConnell was considering bending to pressure and letting Republicans vote on it — a risky move, since there probably *are* 67 votes in the chamber, a veto-proof majority, in favor of the bill if every Republican senator voted on the merits. (How many would end up opposing it out of fear of alienating Trump is a separate and more pressing question.) The point is, Trump’s asking for more authority to realize his protectionist vision when Congress, which normally bows to his wishes, is considering ways to reduce it. How could he and Navarro have misread the mood of congressional Republicans so badly as to think this has a chance of passing?
Two possibilities. One is that Trump knows it won’t pass but thinks it might be useful as leverage against Corker’s bill. Without the FART Act, the debate is between keeping Trump’s authority as-is and removing some of it; with the FART Act on the table, the option of increasing his trade authority is added. Many voters who aren’t sure what to think may intuitively prefer the middle-ground option of leaving his authority as-is, which would undermine support for Corker’s bill. Maybe, then, the FART Act is a radical departure from current law that’s secretly aimed at preserving the status quo.
More likely, though, Trump and Navarro are thinking longer-term. The bill’s not a hedge against Corker, it’s a hedge against the authority of the WTO in anticipation of the organization siding with Canada and other targets of U.S. tariffs when it finally rules on Trump’s steel and aluminum measures. “I think the chances that the WTO will decide against the United States are very, very strong,” said a former member of the WTO Appellate Board to NPR a few weeks ago. Trump likely agrees and views that ruling as a looming opportunity to undermine support for the WTO here at home. Republican voters will see headlines like “International Trade Body Rules Against Trump, U.S.,” instinctively assume that the damned “globalist” elites are mistreating America again, and support whatever Trump wants to do to strike back. It’ll be the trade equivalent of the “U.S. out of the UN!” battle cry. That’ll be Trump’s chance to cut a juicy FART by rolling out his bill and daring congressional Republicans to oppose it. Is Paul Ryan really going to deny the president authority to ignore WTO rules after the org wounds our sense of glorious national honor by siding with Canada?
Well … yeah, probably. Free trade is one of the core beliefs of fiscal conservatives and Democrats would oppose the FART Act purely in the name of denying Trump any new powers. POTUS would whine endlessly about it on Twitter but in the end the fate of the FART Act is likely to be the same as the fate of Trump’s demands to end the legislative filibuster: Congressional Republicans will politely hear him out and then just as politely ignore him. The question is how bitter the ensuing upset will be among populists. If it happens before the midterms, GOP House and Senate incumbents will feel some heat but I don’t think they’ll melt. FART might smell but it won’t be overpowering.