Voters Taken For Granted Are Hurt by Steel Tariff

President Trump won 80 percent of the vote in Poplar Buff, Missouri. Now, 500 employees in a community of 17,000 might lose their jobs by Labor Day. This is happening not just because who is president but also because how we elect the president. 

Writes NPR, “Mid Continent Nail Corporation produces half the nails made in the United States at its factory in southeast Missouri. On June 1, President Trump imposed new tariffs on steel imports. In the following two weeks, Mid Continent's sales went down by half, causing over 100 workers to lose their jobs.”

In issuing the tariff, the President followed through on a bold commitment made in 2016 to the steel industry: “When I’m president, guess what, steel is coming back." Politics motivated the pledge as much as economics. The electoral votes of Ohio and Pennsylvania were a must-win for him in 2016 and will likely be vital in 2020. Without that calculation, he might not have won the election.

But what about the reliably red states where Trump didn't have to campaign in fall 2016? 

Missouri is one of those states. The majority of voters there have picked Republicans in every election for president since 1996. Although the election was close there in 2008, it was not a battleground state in 2016. Therefore, unlike in Ohio and Pennsylvania, candidates did not need to make specific policy commitments in Missouri to gain a plurality in our most recent general election.

And it is red states like Missouri being hit hardest by the President's tariff policy. Business Insider reported on July 8th that “80% of red-state economies benefit, at a level above the national median, from producing goods targeted by tariffs.”

Consider how this situation might have played out differently in a system where the winner of the presidency also needed to win the national popular vote. Reliably Republican voters in Missouri, as well as swing voters in steel communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio, would have a voice in policy-making.

In a national popular vote, the President would have to deal with the issue of unfair trade practices by China in a manner that avoids negative repercussions affecting voters across the country. 

Writes former US Steel Vice President Terrence Straub, “Importantly, the U.S. industry’s consistent, aggressive application of trade cases and remedies in the 1980’s and 90’s had the virtue of forcing the reform of unlawful trade practices by many foreign competitors when faced with the considerable expense of defending, and regularly losing, trade law cases brought by U.S producers. China, unfortunately, has yet to understand this message. Their tonnage, now half the total world supply, is regularly dumped on foreign markets, including ours, thus having the predictable impact of undercutting prices at which steelmakers can earn a reasonable profit margin in order to survive."

"There is an existing and long recognized system of rules of trade engagement, internationally agreed to, that is designed to absorb and sort through these complaints that would avoid the upheaval we’re now seeing. The President, for instance, could have directed his Commerce Department to ‘self initiate’ trade cases thereby bringing all the power and resources of the federal government to bear." 

Imposing a tariff by executive order on the grounds of national security, as the President has done, could do more harm than good even for the industry he aims to protect:

"If the larger negative reaction to the tariff announcement colors the general public’s attitude towards unfair trade complaints, the steel industry and the country will be the real losers in the long run. Setting up a dynamic that trades off a soybean farmers export income in Iowa for a steelworkers income in Indiana is an unfair and unsustainable model for the American economy and for addressing the very real issue of unfair trade."

But in a popular vote system, which the majority of Americans support including President Trump, our president would have to consider the majority of voters, including those who would benefit from a fair trade policy.

As Straub explains it, “Steelworkers  (or any voter for that matter) in a particular state would be more empowered with a direct election vote because their vote would count even if the state went against their candidate.” 


Note: Making Every Vote Count board member James Glassman is a spokesman for Mid-Continental Nail Corporation.