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9 - Trade Politics and Reform

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 November 2014

Judith Goldstein
Stanford University
Jeffery A. Jenkins
University of Virginia
Sidney M. Milkis
University of Virginia
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In setting contemporary trade policy, Americans confront issues far afield from that imagined by the nation’s Founders. The frontier in 1789 was sparsely populated, and although the new nation faced a British government willing and able to undermine commercial activity in the colonies, early elected officials worried little about international markets. Instead, they looked west, and America grew in isolated splendor. Isolationism, however, proved to be a short-lived policy. By the end of the nineteenth century, U. S. central decision makers had to deal with growing demands from constituents for access to foreign markets; by the mid-twentieth century, U. S. commercial policy had moved center stage as the United States orchestrated a widespread globalization in production and trade.

Creating that internationally oriented trade policy, however, was problematic. As the introduction to this volume sets out, most U. S. policies are constrained by decisions rendered long ago by America’s Founders; in 1789, those Founders chose to give Congress the right to set tariffs. Instead of imagining tariffs as a foreign policy tool, tariffs were thought to be another tax. As result, high tariff barriers became the norm, used both to increase government coffers and facilitate rapid industrial development. By the end of the Civil War and demise of the southern pro-trade voting bloc, tariff setting had become the quintessential example of unfettered congressional logrolling. When the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff was making its way through Congress, more than 1,000 economists signed on to a document decrying its content. But as Schattschneider later wrote in his famous analysis of the act, congressional behavior was as predictable as it was problematic – in the face of powerful interest groups and the authority to set rates high tariffs were inevitable.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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