Senators from major soybean-producing states in the Midwest, including Republicans, are steaming over China’s threat to impose tariffs on U.S. soy exports, blaming President Donald Trump's aggressive actions against China for the trade retaliation that could hit farmers and ranchers particularly hard.
Of the top 10 soybean-producing and exporting states, eight voted for Trump and only two for Clinton.
The new penalties are largely seen as retaliation for the tariffs the Trump administration announced against China, the largest purchaser of American soybean exports. In addition to steel and aluminum tariffs, the White House also announced Tuesday additional tariffs on Chinese electronics and other technology-related items.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whose home state was the second-biggest producer of soybeans exports in 2016, the last year such Department of Agriculture statistics were available, said he had warned the president of exactly this sort of retaliatory move during a White House meeting in February.
“The Administration knew that if it imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, China would retaliate against U.S. agriculture,” Grassley said in a statement. “Today shows that’s exactly what happened.”
Grassley added that although the United States should defend its interests against foreign countries who aren’t playing by international trade rules, farmers and ranchers should not bear the brunt of any trade war.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said he would be addressing the issue of tariffs through that panel, which oversees patent, copyright and trademark policy, as well as in his capacity as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade policy.
In addition to soybeans, China is also imposing tariffs on more than 20 other critical American farm and ranch exports, including corn, pork and beef, which will largely hit the same states. The list also includes whiskeys, which would hit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky particularly hard.
McConnell and his House counterpart, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., have long warned that the United States’ aggressive actions could spur a trade war. During a visit with farmers and business leaders in his home state Tuesday – before China announced its new tariffs – McConnell expressed concern over what he viewed as a growing trend in the administration to wield tariffs as a trade cudgel.
“This is a slippery slope, so my hope is that this will stop before it gets into a broader tit-for-tat that can't be good for our country."
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., sent a tweet Wednesday urging President Trump to work with China to protect American workers in the heartland. Her home state is a leading exporter of soybeans, beef and corn.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted that every third row of soybeans in his state is exported.
"This would no doubt have a damaging impact on the agriculture economy and on the hardworking men and women who support it. I will continue to keep pressure on the administration and do all that I can to ensure South Dakota's farmers and ranchers are protected," he said in a statement.
Midwestern Democrats were also quick to weigh in. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement that this brewing trade war is the product of the president’s hair-trigger way of dealing with crises.
“Illinois' farmers now join DACA recipients as the latest victims of President Trump’s temper,” Durbin said. “America cannot move forward in a blizzard of tweets and wild threats from this President.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., recommended that a more productive avenue would be to explore trade enforcement mechanisms to rein China in rather than direct penalties on commodities that hurt American farmers.
“These actions are a direct result of the administration’s proposed tariffs on China, bringing us closer to a trade war that American producers cannot afford,” she said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who has previously applauded the Trump administration for its protectionist actions on trade, said it was no surprise that China was “playing dirty.” But he added that the administration should use this moment, in which both countries are escalating, to force China to the negotiating table.