Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/May 1909/A Permanent Tariff Bureau: Its Relation to Congress and Proper Procedure for Tariff Revision

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FROM the six volumes of conflicting testimony given by over six hundred witnesses, during the six weeks' session of the Ways and Means Committee, it is evident that the framing of a new tariff law is fraught with many perplexities. It is important to make it, as nearly as possible, adapted to the accomplishment of the desired end. Frequent changes are to be avoided, because they upset calculations which are at the foundation of trade. Even if the object of a tariff is agreed to and settled, that object may not be attained by the means proposed. A tariff builder always has in mind one or both of two ideas or results; first, revenue with which to run the federal government; second, protection to domestic industries. These ideas may be, and generally are, antagonistic. A schedule which produces a large revenue may not be protective, and one which is protective may produce no revenue at all. Between these extremes there are numberless conditions where the relative amounts of revenue and protection change as the duty is more or less. And when the modifications of supply and demand and the variations of cost of production are considered the situation becomes worse than kaleidoscopic. Persons may even agree as to the principle upon which a tariff law should be drafted, and yet be hopelessly apart as to its application to a given case. The essential facts relating to many industries are hidden, and, if discovered, are not easily placed and held at their true relative value. They need to be coordinated with other facts relating to other industries here as well as abroad. Iron and steel enter into and form a part of so many articles, structures and things in general, that, it is claimed, if the price of those commodities was the same here as in other countries, foreign markets, now closed, would be opened to our manufacturers who use iron and steel as their raw material. This is also claimed concerning other staples. Whether this be true or false depends upon a great number of facts, which only an expert disinterested person can discover.

For these and other obvious reasons it is apparent that a corps of men in the employment of the government under the civil service, whose permanent duty it should be to probe into, obtain and correlate these facts, would be of great public advantage and utility. A permanent commission, like the Interstate Commerce Commission, has been spoken of, which should have authority to investigate, and upon giving notice of from one to three years, to change the rate or schedule within certain limits prescribed by Congress, say from three to five per cent. A commission, however, with such powers would be unconstitutional. Article I., section 8, of the constitution provides, "The Congress shall have power to lay taxes, duties," etc. The power is given to Congress, and according to the familiar principle that no legislative body can delegate to any other person or tribunal whatever the power which was conferred upon it, such power can not be delegated to any commission. Congress must not only lay the tax and duty, but it must lay one which shall be uniform, definite and certain. It can not entrust the slightest modification or change to the discretion or Judgment of any other tribunal. If a slight change in the tax can be made by a commission, then Congress can authorize it to make a great change. There is no middle ground. The entire power of laying taxes and duties is conferred on the Congress and that power can not be shifted. A commission is in no sense a representative body, and the right to lay taxes is, under our system of government, peculiarly limited to a body which is representative of the whole people. Such essentially is the Congress, to which the authority was given by the constitution.

All the benefits which would legally flow from a commission could also be had from a bureau of tariff in the Department of Commerce and Labor, and with less friction and more efficiency. Such a bureau could furnish data and memoranda with verifying witnesses, who could be examined by the Ways and Means Committee and by parties interested. In this way the whole people of the country would be represented before the committee in a substantial manner, where now they are practically unrepresented so far as the presentation of the case by witnesses and counsel is concerned. As a check upon the accuracy of the work of the bureau, parties interested should have the privilege of cross-examination, and also the right to bring before the congressional committee, which is independent of the bureau and of the department to which it belongs, experts of their own; these experts in turn to be subject to cross-examination by counsel representing the bureau of the tariff.

By such a procedure facts can be elicited upon which an orderly and scientific revision of the tariff can be made. These suggestions are not intended to unnecessarily postpone or indefinitely delay the present proposed revision of the tariff, but simply to indicate a method of procedure which should be made permanent.