Santorum: Can A Protectionist Still Be Conservative?
By SCOTT LINCICOME Posted 01/10/2012 06:43 PM ET
After his surprise showing in the Iowa Caucuses, Sen. Rick Santorum — the latest Not-Romney to climb the polls — is finally receiving some pushback against his claim that he's the one "true conservative" in the 2012 GOP field.
Critics have pilloried Santorum's unabashed love of earmarks and his frequent votes for an expanded welfare state, but a more damning area remains underexplored: Santorum's long embrace of political protectionism.
There is nothing "conservative" about protectionism. To the contrary, trade barriers are little more than hidden forms of wealth redistribution and cronyism. They raise domestic prices for goods and services and thereby force American consumers to subsidize well-connected industries and unions who seek to avoid competition.
Politicians who champion such policies are merely paying off their cronies with everyone else's money. Protectionist policies are akin to earmarks, but their costs come out of the hides of American businesses and families instead of the U.S. Treasury. A vote for protectionism is a vote to raise regressive consumer taxes and to inject government into the business of picking winners and losers. It's a vote against the free market.
Sen. Santorum's record in Congress is replete with such votes, as well as other attempts to line his constituents' pockets at the expense of U.S. taxpayers and consumers. Santorum frequently co-sponsored legislation restricting steel imports to prop up the Pennsylvania steel industry.
Measures such as the Stop Illegal Steel Trade Act of 1999 would have violated the United States' international obligations, encouraged retaliation by U.S. trading partners, forced American consumers to pay higher prices for everyday necessities, and harmed millions of workers in steel-using industries — workers who outnumbered U.S. steelworkers by 40-to-1.
Santorum also fought for the imposition of steel tariffs under "Section 201" of U.S. Trade Law — an inglorious Bush administration decision that contributed to sky-high steel prices and a hobbled downstream industry.
Santorum's protectionism, however, didn't stop with his friends in the steel industry. During his time in Congress, he championed "safeguards" on surging lamb-meat imports, tariffs on imported honey and European pork, and restrictions on Japanese automobiles and auto parts. He also voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement and for an economy-crippling 27.5% tariff on all Chinese goods.
Moreover, Santorum was a leading advocate for amending U.S. trade laws to make it easier for domestic industries and unions to obtain taxes on imports of foreign competitors. By prohibiting consideration of consumer interests and mandating various accounting tricks, these laws have resulted in ad hoc duties on hundreds of products (including many inputs essential to other U.S. companies) at a more-than 60% success rate for domestic petitioners. Yet Santorum often co-sponsored legislation, such as the Fair Trade Law Enforcement Act of 1999, to further rig the game in his team's favor.
He also co-sponsored the highly controversial Continued Dumping and Subsidy Offset Act — also known as the "Byrd Amendment" — which encouraged new trade cases and funneled billions of dollars in duties paid by U.S. importers to the domestic companies who first petitioned for their imposition.
Despite Santorum's strong opposition, the Byrd Amendment was repealed in 2006 after being ruled illegal by the WTO, yet aggrieved nations are still imposing retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports because Byrd monies continue to be disbursed.
Santorum was not consistently protectionist, however. He voted for most U.S. free trade agreements and to grant the president "fast track" trade negotiating authority. He also sponsored bills to lower tariffs on select imports, including television inputs used by Pennsylvania-based Sony.
Yes, that's right: the same guy who supported consumer-battering import restrictions on steel and other goods fought for their elimination when the direct beneficiaries resided in his state. Such inconsistency reveals a cynical politician who understands the benefits of free trade, yet eschews them when doing so suits his political ambitions.
A candidate's stance on trade is predictive of whether he, once elected, will put facts and principle before politics and self-interest. Politicians who reject protectionism turn down eager corporate and union campaign donations from unseemly rent-seekers trying to thwart international competition at the expense of American families and companies.
They ignore demagogic attacks on their patriotism. And they openly support policies which, despite their overwhelming economic and historical support, are met with public hostility or disinterest and an unethical opposition willing to take full advantage thereof.
On the other hand, politicians who peddle protectionism are either ignorant of history and economics or are willing to discard their conservative ideals and prey on voter fears for short-term political advantage.
Sen. Santorum's record shows that he understands the costs of protectionism but is perfectly willing to impose them when his cronies stand to benefit. Such "political protectionism" not only is not "conservative," but also raises serious — indeed disqualifying — doubts as to the candidate's fitness as a leader and public servant.