In ordinary times, if there were an ordinary Republican in the Oval Office, there’d be no need to comment on Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s stand on foreign trade. The two likely would be on the same page, supporting a more or less free exchange of goods and services between the U.S. and the world. Business as usual for the party of business.
But the Republican now in the White House is of a different stripe on trade as on some other key issues. At least, if you go by his policy pronouncements thus far. Which explains a joint press statement today by Gardner and Colorado’s Democratic senior U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet calling on the administration to narrow its “investigation” launched in April into “Aluminum Imports and Threats to National Security.”
It’s an obscure policy initiative by the White House, far off the Colorado public’s radar — essentially, a first step toward trade sanctions against aluminum imports — and Gardner and Bennet make a case in their press release that what we don’t know could hurt us:
In April, the President directed the Secretary of Commerce in consultation with the Secretary of Defense to investigate whether foreign imports of aluminum are endangering our national security. Colorado is a major beer-producing state and the results of this investigation could have an enormous impact on Colorado’s beer industry.
And by “enormous impact,” they mean raise the cost of doing business. So the two senators and six others (including another Democrat) signed a letter asking the administration to exempt from its investigation the kinds of sheet aluminum used to make food and beverage containers, among other products. The letter reads in part:
We are concerned, however, that the scope of this investigation could include aluminum that has no national security application …
… Import restrictions or tariffs on these products could increase consumer prices, add hundreds of millions in costs for companies in the beverage industry, and potentially affect American manufacturing jobs in industries that rely on these products.
Moreover, the letter states, there simply isn’t enough U.S.-produced aluminum to satisfy demand by U.S. industries — including Colorado beer — that need it.
You may be wondering how importing aluminum could imperil national security. Ask most economists, and they’ll say it can’t. But there is an opposing, pro-“fair” trade school of thought — embraced by some economists but probably more politicians — that holds that cheap imports put vital U.S. industries at risk. As the administration explains it in the above-linked, April 27 memorandum ordering the investigation by the Commerce Department:
… The artificially low prices caused by excess capacity and unfairly traded imports suppress profits in the American aluminum industry, which discourages long-term investment in the industry and hinders efforts by American aluminum producers to research and develop new and better grades of aluminum. …
Presumably, that would undermine the U.S. aluminum industry’s preparedness for some crisis. A war, perhaps.
Wouldn’t the U.S. still be able to get aluminum from abroad? Maybe not, the fair traders say; overseas aluminum sources might dry up if those foreign sources are hostile.
OK, but Gardner and Bennet tell us, “Primary aluminum that is made into rolled can sheet is largely sourced from Canada” — a nation with which the U.S. is unlikely to go to war. Especially not with a charmer like Justin Trudeau at the helm.
The fair traders would say you can’t be too cautious; critics would say the fair traders are connecting too many dots — and that “national security” is really just a lofty label for job protection. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, say the critics, so long as you don’t mind protecting a relative handful of jobs at the expense of millions of U.S. consumers.
Enough with the economics lesson; let’s get back to politics: The takeaway here is that Cory Gardner again finds himself at odds with his own party’s president on trade — and it’s the president, not Gardner, who is outside his party’s mainstream on the issue.
Last month, Gardner voted against confirming Trump’s pick for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, who is a longtime critic of free trade. Gardner at the time contended Lighthizer’s policies, “could hurt Colorado’s farmers and ranchers.”
Gardner of course takes care not to turn any of it into a thumb in the president’s eye; he keeps it all very cordial. It’s not a hill to die on, not when there’s so much else at stake.