The Trump administration recently dropped its threat to jack up the tariffs it previously imposed on $200 billion worth of imported Chinese goods, which should come as a relief to the many U.S. businesses and consumers that are paying them. On the other hand, President Donald Trump may be moving closer to slapping tariffs on imported cars, trucks and auto parts, despite widespread opposition — including from the Big Three U.S. automakers.

Simply put, Trump likes tariffs. They give him a bigger stick in trade talks with countries whose economies are sustained by exports, such as China, much of Europe and South Korea. And he has wide latitude to levy them, thanks to the power Congress has entrusted to the president since 1934.

But 20th century lawmakers probably did not envision a chief executive using tariffs the way Trump has. And now that Trump is wielding import duties like a club on U.S. allies and adversaries alike, current members of Congress are trying to take some of that power back.

In particular, they are seeking to pull back some of the authority Congress granted the White House in 1962, at the height of the Cold War. The main purpose of the law was to let the president strike trade deals that cut tariffs and other trade barriers, but it also gave the president authority to raise trade barriers if he deemed it necessary to protect national security.

Before Trump, this power was invoked only twice, in both cases to block crude oil imports: first from Iran, after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, and then from Libya in 1982, in response to that country’s support for terrorism. Trump, however, has used the national-defense rationale as a flag of convenience, imposing tariffs with only a fanciful connection to U.S. security interests.

Slapping tariffs on imported vehicles and parts would inflict widespread collateral damage on U.S. companies, workers and consumers. Supply chains are global now, so even cars and trucks made in the United States may rely on imported components. And like a sales tax, tariffs ultimately raise costs for consumers, depressing demand. That’s why U.S. automakers, whose interests are supposedly being protected here, hate the idea. So do farmers and other U.S. exporters, because Trump’s tariffs have prompted our trading partners to retaliate with levies on U.S. products.

And so, evidently, does a sizable and bipartisan group of senators. They have introduced two competing bills — one would make it harder for presidents to use national security as a pretext to impose tariffs or other trade barriers and the other would give Congress the power to quickly revoke such actions. Similar measures have been introduced by bipartisan groups in the House.

Los Angeles Times