A trac­tor driver could steer Congress back to san­ity Ge­orge Will

Las Vegas Review-Journal - - OPINION | -

His trac­tor is so noisy that, when driv­ing it, the man who calls him­self “just a farmer from Butler County” puts his cell­phone un­der his cap, set on vi­brate. Charles Grass­ley, 85, who has served in the Sen­ate longer than all but 11 of the 1,983 other sen­a­tors — and who still runs 3 miles four morn­ings a week — does not have am­ple time for farm­ing be­cause he has vis­ited all of Iowa’s 99 coun­ties ev­ery year for 38 years, and last missed a Sen­ate vote 8,300 votes ago, when Iowa was flooded in 1993.

He is a non-lawyer who just left the chair­man­ship of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee to be­come chair­man of the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee. In his 45th year in Congress (he was in the House 1975-1981), he will help this in­sti­tu­tion re­cover some of the power it has im­prov­i­dently — and per­haps un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally — del­e­gated to pres­i­dents.

His com­mit­tee’s purview is vast — he in­tends to ad­dress pre­scrip­tion drug prices — but trade pol­icy will be at the top of the agenda. There is the re­vised agree­ment with Mex­ico and Canada to ap­prove, and a de­vel­op­ing agree­ment with Ja­pan to par­tially undo the dam­age done by the pres­i­dent’s scrap­ping of the Trans-pa­cific Part­ner­ship.

Re­cently, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Euro­pean Union was in Grass­ley’s of­fice ex­plain­ing why agri­cul­ture could not be in­cluded in a trade agree­ment. Grass­ley af­fa­bly but un­bend­ingly ex­plained to her that there would be no agree­ment with­out agri­cul­ture. In or­der to dis­pel any fact-free su­per­sti­tions about GMOS (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms), Grass­ley took from a small bag a ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied soy­bean and, to demon­strate its safety, chewed it as farm­ers do to test whether a bean’s mois­ture in­di­cates the crop is ready for har­vest.

Grass­ley, who is the right Fi­nance chair­man for a Sen­ate in­ter­ested in claw­ing back pow­ers, says: “The Con­sti­tu­tion tasks Congress with the author­ity to reg­u­late trade with for­eign coun­tries.” And: “I do not be­lieve that we should alien­ate our al­lies with tar­iffs dis­guised as na­tional se­cu­rity pro­tec­tions.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has im­posed tar­iffs on steel and alu­minum im­ports from, among other places, placid, tran­quil Canada, a mil­i­tary ally, be­cause, he says, they threaten “na­tional se­cu­rity.” This is ab­surd, and he might soon pi­o­neer a new di­men­sion of pre­pos­ter­ous­ness by say­ing that au­to­mo­bile im­ports do, too. Per­haps some con­tem­po­rary Longfel­low will cel­e­brate the pres­i­dent as a Paul Re­vere, spread­ing the alarm to ev­ery vil­lage and farm: “The Audis are com­ing! The Audis are com­ing!”

Pres­i­dents can uni­lat­er­ally im­pose taxes, which tar­iffs are, be­cause 57 years ago, dur­ing the Cold War (11 days be­fore Pres­i­dent John Kennedy told the na­tion about the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis), the Trade Ex­pan­sion Act of 1962 be­came law. Its Sec­tion 232 em­pow­ers the pres­i­dent, upon a find­ing from the sec­re­tary of com­merce (the pres­i­dent’s em­ployee) that this or that im­port jeop­ar­dizes “na­tional se­cu­rity,” to im­pose tar­iffs. The pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion is al­most com­pletely im­mune to re­view.

Leg­is­la­tion spon­sored by Sens. Rob Port­man, R-ohio; Joni Ernst, R-iowa; and Doug Jones, D-ala., would re­quire the De­fense Depart­ment, not Com­merce, to ar­gue any na­tional se­cu­rity ra­tio­nale for Sec­tion 232 tar­iffs, and would em­power Congress to dis­ap­prove Sec­tion 232 ac­tions con­cern­ing tar­iffs on any prod­ucts. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA., pro­poses even bet­ter leg­is­la­tion that would re­quire Congress to ap­prove a pres­i­den­tial act un­der Sec­tion 232. Be­cause 41 sen­a­tors could fili­buster a res­o­lu­tion of ap­proval, that num­ber could block Sec­tion 232 tar­iffs. And Toomey’s bill is retroac­tive to re­quire con­gres­sional ap­proval of Trump’s met­als tar­iffs.

Grass­ley, who thinks Congress has del­e­gated too much power over trade, prob­a­bly will be de­ci­sive re­gard­ing mea­sures to nar­row the scope of pres­i­den­tial dis­cre­tion, thereby re­claim­ing some of Congress’ pow­ers. Hav­ing served in Congress dur­ing eight pres­i­den­cies, Grass­ley knows that they come and go, while Congress en­dures, although it has not al­ways been con­sci­en­tious re­gard­ing its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The ar­gu­ments for term lim­its on mem­bers of Congress are con­vinc­ing, but Grass­ley, who in seven terms has de­vel­oped a stronger at­tach­ment to the pre­rog­a­tives of his in­sti­tu­tion than to any pres­i­dent, il­lus­trates a ben­e­fit of long ca­reers.

When Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han — a New York chau­vin­ist, and prop­erly so — came to the Sen­ate in 1977, he sought, and got, a seat on the Fi­nance Com­mit­tee. He con­sid­ered it scan­dalous that no se­na­tor from the cap­i­tal of Amer­i­can fi­nance had been on the panel in 50 years. But Moyni­han would be con­tent that the com­mit­tee is now chaired by the man on the trac­tor.

SARAH SILBIGER / NEW YORK TIMES FILE (2018)

Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, R-iowa, is the new chair­man of the Sen­ate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee.

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