News & Politics

GOP Free-Trade Lawmakers Blast Trump's $12 Billion Ag Bailout

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Some Republican lawmakers are reacting with outrage to Donald Trump’s proposal to give $12 billion to farmers and ranchers hard hit by retaliatory tariffs from Europe and China.

“This is becoming more and more like a Soviet type of economy here: Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.).

That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. The whole point of tariffs is that they cause pain to industries that are targeted. Trump may think trade wars are winnable, but perhaps he should tell that to farmers who can’t sell their harvest because retaliatory tariffs have made them too expensive.

Other GOP lawmakers were also highly critical, according to Politico:

“Taxpayers are going to be asked to initial checks to farmers in lieu of having a trade policy that actually opens and expands more markets. There isn’t anything about this that anybody should like,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. He suggested the new spending might need to be offset by cuts in other funding areas.

Trump’s move on Tuesday highlighted what’s become the largest and most painful divide between his presidency and the congressional GOP: his protectionist trade policies. And a number of senators have been itching to tie the president’s hands from making unilateral tariff policy with legislation that would require Congress to approve of unilateral tariffs that are imposed with the justification of national security.

That proposal doesn’t yet have enough GOP support to pass the Senate, and it appears Trump’s bailouts to farm country are intended to tamp down GOP criticism of Trump’s trade policies. But the president’s move had the opposite effect, enraging his harshest critics and worrying farm-state senators like Thune.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Trump is giving farmers “golden crutches,” while Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said “this bailout compounds bad policy with more bad policy.” Toomey and GOP Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee said their legislation to tie the president’s hands on tariffs should pick up new steam now that the Trump administration is distorting the market.

“This is what we feared all along, that these markets would be replaced by handouts,” Flake said. “You lose some of these markets, you lose them for good or a long time.”

“You put people in the poorhouse and provide them aid. What you need to do is not put them in the poorhouse,” Corker said. “They put in place a policy that requires farmers to go on welfare.”

In a free-market, capitalist economy, there is no room for bailouts of this sort — even if the fault for the recipient’s condition lies with government.

In this case, Trump’s proposal is a blatant political payoff to a major Republican constituency — sort of like Obama using the stimulus package to pay off teachers, state union workers, and other Democratic interest groups who supported him in 2008. Remember how bitterly we criticized Obama then?

But farm-state Republican politicians who might be grousing about the bailout now will probably end up voting for it by the time it hits the House and Senate floor. You can debate the pros and cons of Trump’s tariffs and even free-traders have to agree he has a point about unfair trade. But these tit for tat tariffs are killing farmers and will soon begin to hurt other industries as well. Is the president prepared to bail them all out?

If this precedent is set, he’ll have a hard time resisting the calls from devastated individuals and industries to be treated the same way.