The news that our trade with China has been bad for the American middle class has finally reached the U.S. Senate. On Monday, the Senate will take up legislation that would impose tariffs on Chinese goods so long as China depresses the value of its currency. Despite the partisan polarization that grinds lawmaking to a halt these days, the bill’s support is thoroughly bipartisan, with sponsors ranging from such conservative Republicans as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham to liberal Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. The legislation is expected to clear the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle for a floor vote and move on to the House.
For students of America’s deranged romance with free trade, the fact that the Senate is willing to take on China is little short of amazing. Since the 1980s, the House has been the legislative body where epic battles have been waged over the free-trade agreements that have decimated American manufacturing. The impact of factory closures on congressional districts is generally too big for representatives to ignore. Local manufacturers and bankers, no less than local union members, complain to their House members; when the town’s biggest employer leaves, grief knows no party. Senators, on the other hand, move in a larger world, one where Wall Street contributors and Washington pundits assure them that free trade is invariably good. So while the House has been home to furious fights over NAFTA, CAFTA and extending permanent normalized trade relations to China, the Senate has long passed such measures with much less fuss and sublime indifference to the consequences.