c.2019 New York Times News Service
Congressional Republicans have suggested they might join Democrats in pushing back against President Donald Trump’s vow to use emergency powers to impose a sharp tax increase on Americans when they buy Mexican goods, unless and until the Mexican government does more to stop migrants from reaching and illegally crossing the U.S. border.
Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexican goods would be his latest unorthodox use of standby authorities that Congress has delegated to the presidency for exigent circumstances, a set of unilateral powers he has been invoking with increasing aggression to bypass the legislative branch.
It would be a change if significant numbers of congressional Republicans followed through on their vows to stand up to the president — and for the role of Congress as an equal branch of government — by voting to block his move, instead of acquiescing to it as they have before.
But here is how they could if they so chose and what mechanisms the president could use to prevail.
What are emergency powers?
Congress has enacted laws giving the president the ability to activate enhancements to his normal powers if he declares a national emergency. The idea is to enable the government to respond quickly to a crisis.
The laws generally do not set detailed standards for when a president may declare an emergency. But where previous presidents of both parties exercised self-restraint in how they used such powers — by limiting their use to situations that Congress anticipated and agreed with — Trump has been becoming far more aggressive.
What is Trump planning for Mexico?
Trump has said he will unilaterally impose tariffs on imports of most Mexican goods, from auto parts to food, using one of the laws that creates emergency powers, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. If he follows through, Americans will start paying what is essentially a tax of 5% on imports from Mexico starting Monday, and the tariff rate would ramp up monthly, reaching 25% by October.
Economists warn that this will damage the economies of both countries. It will raise prices for U.S. consumers, and Mexico will probably impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S.-produced goods — driving down demand to buy them. Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner; in 2018, the United States imported $371.9 billion in goods and services from Mexico and exported $299.1 billion in goods and services there.
Is this a normal use of that law?
No. The International Emergency Economic Powers Act says that if the president decides that circumstances abroad have created “any unusual and extraordinary threat” to “the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States,” he can declare a “national emergency.” This triggers special authority for him to regulate “any transactions in foreign exchange” by Americans.
But the law does not mention tariffs, and no previous president has used it to impose them, according to the Congressional Research Service. The law has been used to impose sanctions on foreign adversaries and wrongdoers — blocking their property and prohibiting transactions with them — for things like terrorism, human rights abuses, malicious hacking, narcotics trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
What can Congress do about it?
Under the National Emergencies Act of 1976, Congress can legally terminate an “emergency” that a president says exists — and turn off the special powers the president has activated — by enacting a resolution to do so. Senate Republicans apparently threatened to join Democrats in doing just that after a lunch this week in which they were briefed by administration lawyers about the tariffs proposal