OUR MAN IN Washington writes that the success of the US Democratic party in retaking control of the lower house of Congress in this week’s US midterm elections will not make much difference to the bipartisan consensus in Washington in favour of being tougher on China, certainly in the short-term and probably not for the duration of the Trump presidency.
In the unlikely event that Beijing was expecting American voters to deliver a stinging rebuff to their president at the polls, it will have been disappointed.
The new Congress, which does not convene until January, will let the Democrats play the spoiler in the House, where they now have a slim majority, but not advance their agenda. In the Senate, Trump’s Republicans increased their majority, and thus strengthened President Donald Trump’s nominating power, should he need, for example, to put in place a new Defense or Treasury Secretary who is more of a ‘China hawk’ than the incumbents.
The Democrats will not come to office unified in their position over trade, over which Congress, not the White House technically has ultimate authority as it writes the laws regarding trade deals and tariffs, and authorises the President’s remit over individual trade negotiations..
The Democrats old House leadership (in terms of both incumbency and age), which is likely if not certain, to continue in the new Congress, still reflects the interests of labour unions and has traditionally been sceptical of free trade. Some of new, younger, progressive Democrats have expressed pro-free trade sentiments. Elizabeth Warren, a possible if unlikely Democrat presidential nominee for 2020 and a veteran leader of the Democratic left, has complained that Trump’s punitive tariffs on China do not go far enough.
Two key figures to watch are Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who is likely to become chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which gives him influence over budget allocations, and New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, who is expected to chair the House trade subcommittee.
Neal is on record as a supporter of robust and enforceable labour and environmental provisions in trade deals, a position followed by many Democratic legislators, while Pascrell has opposed a putative free trade deal with the Philippines on the basis of the Duterte administration’s human rights record.
Pascrell has also hounded the Trump administration over its steel and aluminium tariffs and made rhetorical points about how Congress is trying to lower trade barriers in contrast to an administration that seeks to raise them. However, scoring political points by demanding the administration clarifies its tariff strategy and insisting it does not harm U.S. exporters or importers, is not the same thing as trying to force Trump’s hand over China trade in a direction it does not want to turn.
One area where there might be some momentum, because there is also support for it among House Republicans, is to rein in the president’s ability to unilaterally raise tariffs without consulting Congress, an attempt to wrest back some of Congress’s authority over trade that it has traditionally wielded.
In the current Congress, bills to that effect have failed to make it out of committee. However, were they to do better in the new Congress, they still face being killed off in the Senate, where there is a supportive Trump majority that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signalled would be used to that end.
The Senate will likely be less fertile ground for those hoping to lower the tensions between Washington and Beijing. Many Democrats there, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have spoken in support of the administration’s protectionist policies. Senators in Rust Belt states, where Trumpism has taken particular root, also look favourably on tariffs that could shield their local industries. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who leads the protectionist wing of the Democratic Party, recorded one of the most emphatic Democratic victories of last Tuesday.
There are issues other than trade between the two countries, of course, notably North Korea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, as well as the general one of Trump’s ‘America First’ stance at home and abroad, with China now categorised a strategic adversary of the United States.
The Congressional gridlock that he will face in the final two years of his first term may tempt him to become more active in foreign affairs in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections. If there is one thing that is certain about the Trump administration is its unpredictability.