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 three 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 committee’s 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 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.
George Will is a conservative columnist who has been covering and writing about the national and international scene for half a century.