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Like Obama, Trump Loves to Make Laws with "a Pen and a Phone"

Tags Protectionism and Free TradeU.S. HistoryPolitical Theory


When Donald Trump raised taxes on steel and aluminum in the form of a large tariff hike, virtually no one in Washington seemed much perturbed by the fact that the president raised taxes without so much as a debate in Congress.

In the grade-school version of American politics, of course, children are taught that Congress controls government taxation and spending. Tax increases must be subject to a vote in Congress in order to become law. Or so we're told.

The principle of the legislature controlling government revenues goes back centuries, at least as far back as the times of conflict between English King Charles I and Parliament. Among backers of Parliament, it was believed that kings — including Charles, of course — were prone to waste tax money on wars. Thus kings were forced to go to Parliament to raise funds for the wars they wished to wage.

In modern America, however, we no longer waste time on such antiquated formalities. Nowadays, the president, who in the words of Barack Obama has "a pen and a phone" can simply raise taxes whenever he wants via executive order. He need only call the tax hike a new tariff, and claim it's all for the sake of national security.

The Parliament-backers of old, of course, were too smart to fall for that "national security" trick. Even war expenditures had to win Parliament's approval. America's Congress, though, long ago abdicated its control over taxes, and created a huge tariff loophole in which any president can raise taxes if he says it's a matter of military necessity.

If we read Trump's executive orders, we find they pay lip service to the national security line. The texts of the executive orders raising tariffs on steel and aluminum both state that the lack of tariffs "threaten to impair the national security of the United States." 

No evidence that this is true is actually presented. And, indeed, the secretary of Defense has specifically stated that tariffs are not necessary for national security:

... the US military requirements for steel and aluminum each only represent about three percent of US production. Therefore, DoD does not believe that the finds in the reports impact the ability of DoD programs to acquire the steel or aluminum necessary to meet national defense requirements.

[RELATED: "Not Even the Pentagon Thinks Tariffs Are Needed for National Defense"]

But, merely invoking the phrase acts like a magic talisman that removes the need for any debate or vote in Congress on a tax hike.

Given our apparently lackadaisical attitude over such matters, it's hard to image what all that fuss was about during the English Civil War and the fight for Parliamentary independence in England. Those Englishmen of old apparently lacked the insight of modern Americans which is that the Executive ought to be allowed to raise taxes whenever he wants, provided he utters a few words about "national security." 

Trump's Fondness for Executive Action 

Tax hikes aren't the only topic on which Donald Trump likes to rule by decree. 

On matters of gun control, too, Trump seems enthusiastic about doing an end run around Congress. 

“As I promised, today the Department of Justice will issue the rule banning BUMP STOCKS with a mandated comment period,” Trump said on Twitter as the announcement was made. “We will BAN all devices that turn legal weapons into illegal machine guns.”

Ignoring the fact that bump stocks most certainly do not turn legal weapons into "machine guns," we can nevertheless see how this administration — and most others over the past century — have viewed the process of lawmaking in the United States. 

Want to ban something? Just have a government department issue a "rule." No need for legislation, debate, votes, or any of that other outdated "democracy" stuff! And if you violate one of these new "rules?" Well, you may be looking at a lengthy prison sentence. 

Of course, there's no indication that Trump plans at stopping with bump stocks. As he so enthusiastically has informed us, he's not terribly fond of the due process involved in making law with public input. That's all so tedious, which is why when it comes to guns, Trump wants to “Take the guns first, go through due process second.” 

Not that Trump is unique in his presidential disdain for due process. He's just willing to say so out loud. 

Trump does appear to be especially fond of unilaterally issuing his own laws, as it seems that Trump is on pace to sign more executive orders than any other president in the past 50 years. 

Admittedly, this metric alone isn't a very good one for measuring just how bad a president is. A year into his presidency, George W. Bush was signing off on the liberty-eviscerating USA Patriot Act, and calling for large scale invasions of various foreign countries — countries that could not be shown to be any threat to the United States. He had Congress's approval on that — unfortunately. 

But coupled with Trump's clearly stated disdain for due process and his willingness to cynically employ the "national security" ruse to raise taxes on Americans, it's not a promising trend. 


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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