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Republican Sen. Mike Lee Discusses Bill That Would Curb Trump's Authority On Trade


You could say a different kind of trade fight is happening within the Republican Party right now. On one side, those who agree with President Trump's protectionist policies and support the high tariffs he's put in place against some American allies. On the other side, there are those sticking with what's been the traditional GOP orthodoxy, free trade, saying it's essential to the prosperity of American workers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: American trade. Free trade is essential to that prosperity - creating jobs, transforming lives. To keep growing, we must keep trading. Tariffs are not the answer.

CORNISH: Now that ad was released last week by the group Freedom Partners. They're funded in part by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. They're speaking out, and so are lawmakers, more and more, with some Republicans pushing legislation to rein in the president. Utah Senator Mike Lee is one of them. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MIKE LEE: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: So long before President Trump started announcing tariffs, you had introduced the Global Trade Accountability Act, and it actually prevents the White House from taking unilateral trade actions, including tariffs. And I understand you introduced this the day that Trump was inaugurated. But how come two years in, you're pushing for this? Is what you've seen give you more cause for concern?

LEE: I identified the need for this several years ago, long before we knew even who the nominees would be. But now, we see that there is a lot of movement on the trade front. We see that there is a lot of action being taken by the executive in the direction of starting a trade war.

Now Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, very importantly, gives this power to Congress. Unfortunately, over the last hundred years, Congress has steadily given away most of that power, voluntarily relinquishing it to the executive branch. And I think it's time to take a look at that and to take some of that power back.

CORNISH: One thing we've heard President Trump say in recent months is he has tariffs that he uses a national security justification for. Do you agree with that approach?

LEE: He uses Section 232 authority, and Section 232 is set aside for national security purposes. I disagree with his use of it here. The whole idea of this, with regard to the tariffs he's slapped on imported steel and aluminum, is that we need that production in order to make sure that we can manufacture the things we need to keep our country safe.

CORNISH: Do you worry it'll be tossed on other things - right? I mean, once you use it once, you throw it on, like, olive oil or cheese?

LEE: Sure. Well, these things happen. Once we slap tariffs on something, other countries will slap it on others in retaliation. And here, I don't even see a national security justification for doing what he did.

Because - one thing that's interesting, and I think most people don't realize - you know how much of our domestic output of steel - steel manufacturing in the United States - is necessary to supply our national security needs? It's 3 percent, not 30, not 13 - 3 percent.

And this is not a cost-free proposition because we're going to face all kinds of other tariffs in response to other nations reacting to what we've done here.

CORNISH: Here's the thing. Traditionally, letting Congress handle tariffs and trade - it's perceived that you guys are just too captive to special interests, right? There's a lot of representatives who would want to influence policy - trade policy - to keep their districts and constituents happy. I mean, how would your legislation get around that?

LEE: OK. You raise a great question. This is exactly why our founding fathers put the legislative power, including the power to set tariffs, in this big, bulky, bicameral body known as Congress. It was supposed to be difficult to do that - not easy to do that.

When you consolidate this power in one person or in one branch of government, you make it a lot more easy for a special interest to kick in, for a special interest to make an emotional appeal at the moment, even though that emotional appeal might not bring about the best policy for America's citizens. Particularly, it's for the middle classes.

CORNISH: Do you worry that? I mean, I think the perception from people - that there's a lot of lobbyists wandering around Congress.

LEE: Oh, sure. Sure. They are. But at least the power is dispersed in Congress.

And keep in mind, when this power was given away over the course of many decades, bit by bit, it was done, I believe, in order for members of Congress to shift blame, knowing that when things like this happen, it would be better for them to say, oh, I didn't vote for that. I just voted to delegate to the executive branch the power to do that. But I didn't make this particular decision. Then they wash their hands of it as if to escape accountability.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, what have you heard from the White House? Have you talked to them about your concerns?

LEE: Of course. I've spoken to officials at the White House many times about my concerns. I've spoken to the president himself directly many times about my concerns. They continue to listen, and continue, at least to this point, not to retreat. I hope that results in a change of policy.

There are many who say this is part of a grander strategy to achieve some better outcome at the end of the day. I worry about what might happen in the meantime if this is somehow leverage. If that leverage is used to the point that we break something in the process, that something that's broken in the process might not be something we can put together all that easily. And that scares me to death.

CORNISH: Senator Mike Lee of Utah, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LEE: Thank you. It's great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.