The tariffs, which the White House said will increase from 5% up to 25% in the coming months unless Trump sees the results he wants. But what they are, exactly, White House officials couldn’t explain. If they go into effect, they will impose harsh economic penalties on Americans who buy goods from Mexico. Which is probably every American.
These powers were used throughout the Cold War until the 1970s, when, according to CRS, Congress basically realized the US had been in a state of emergency for 40 years and put new restrictions on the President, including requirements to track the cost of any emergency and justify it each year.
The law by which Trump can impose sanctions like the tariffs, passed in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, is the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act. This authority has actually been used quite frequently; there have been 54 national emergencies, 29 of which are ongoing.
The law has never, before now, been used to impose tariffs, according to CRS. And Mexico is a neighbor and ally, from which we bought $345 billion in stuff last year because we are joined together in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
That’s an incredibly broad application, especially considering those costs will ultimately be passed along to American consumers, who ultimately bear the brunt of tariffs — which are paid by importers, not by exporting countries.
They’ll affect the supply chain for the US auto industry, machinery, medical instruments, not to mention the avocados and tomatoes in American salads, fruit, vegetables. All of it.
And it’s a two-way street. Americans sold just shy of $300 billion in goods to Mexico in 2018 — cars, machinery, pork and beef. Billions and billions dollars worth of many different type of goods that might be subject to retaliatory tariffs from Mexico.
But Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas and a CNN legal analyst, said what Trump is doing under the law may very well be within the authority Congress gives the White House — though it’s just as surely not what Congress ever intended.
“The idea behind these authorities is that the President is better situated to make those kinds of determinations than Congress, especially when they’re time-sensitive,” Vladeck said in an email. “So I think the President’s conduct may well be within the letter of the law here. But, as with the National Emergencies Act, I very much doubt this kind of exercise of the authority conferred by the statute is what Congress had in mind.”
If the tariffs go into effect and American consumers suffer, don’t be surprised if lawmakers try again.