Foreign Relations Panel Shows Bipartisan Scorn for Administration Trade Agenda

Tough questions from both sides of aisle, liberal, conservative witnesses

Josh Bolten, right, CEO of the Business Roundtable, talks with Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled "Tariffs: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy and the International Economy," on July 12, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker was candid with the State Department witness that appeared before his committee at a hearing on Trump administration trade policy Thursday morning.

“You are going to be cannon fodder this morning, and I don’t think you are really prepared to defend the policies in an appropriate manner,” the Tennessee Republican told Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Manisha Singh.

It was clear that Singh had a good rapport with members of the committee on other matters, but that was not the case with the administration’s use of Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose steel and aluminum tariffs.

“I’m sorry you’ve got to be selling the program you’re selling today,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said.

“I’m reminded of the Wendy’s commercial about 20 years ago, where the little old lady in the Rambler pulls up to the window,” Isakson said, with Corker interjecting the classic, “Where’s the beef?”

In the view of members of the panel, the State Department had few answers at the hearing about the strategy underlying trade policy decisions. At one point, Corker wondered aloud whether tariff exemptions might be granted to companies operated by President Donald Trump’s campaign donors.

“I know senators have been up there to meet with [the president] a zillion times. I’ve not heard a single senator come back with any earthly idea, any earthly idea, cannot articulate a sentence, as to why we’re doing this,” Corker said. “I happen to believe there absolutely is no plan, and in the mornings people wake up and make this up as they go along, and if in some uncanny way they figure out a way out of this, that’ll be great for our nation.”

“The president is acting within his statutory authority. We have looked at Section 232, there was a very robust interagency process in which the State Department participated [with] the Treasury Department,” Singh said. “Every agency of the United States which has equities in particular areas came together. We talked about this. We talked about the plan, we talked about a strategy. Our goal was to act in the interest of the American economy.”

The hearing came the morning after a Corker-led effort to get a symbolic vote, 88-11, in support of congressional review of trade actions under the auspices of “national security.”

At one point, Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine placed a bottle of Catoctin Creek whiskey from nearby Purcellville, Va., on the dais, to criticize the effect of retaliatory tariffs from the European Union on American distillers.

The second panel of witnesses featured an expert from the Center for American Progress in agreement with Business Roundtable President and CEO Joshua Bolten. Bolten, a former White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush, conceded during an exchange with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware the awkwardness of needing to speak out so vocally against a GOP administration.

“It’s not necessarily a comfortable thing for the head of the Business Roundtable to come forward and speak out against an administration that has been so effective for American business on issues like taxes and regulation and workforce training and skilling. On all of those issues, we’ve cooperated tremendously well with the administration,” Bolten said. “We believe they are headed in a very dangerous direction.”

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