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A History of U.S. Tariffs

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

Tariffs are essentially a tax on imports. Last year, the U.S. expected to take in about $40.4 billion in customs duties and fees on imported goods.

You’re hearing a lot of partisan talk these days about increases in tariffs — especially goods from China. But the truth is, this kind of talk is nothing new. Tariffs in the U.S. have always been politicized. They’re often protectionist or retaliatory.

And while it’s easy to argue that higher tariffs often backfire — like during the Great Depression — one can also argue that they’ve been effective at times in protecting U.S. business interests.

Tariff of Abominations: 1828

Tariffs become a sectional dispute, with industrial northern states wanting to protect its businesses and southern states wanting low tariffs. Once the national debt is paid off in 1834, President Andrew Jackson cuts tariff rates sharply.

The Black Tariff: 1842

The Whig Party takes control of Congress and, in a new wave of protectionist support, raises tariff rates.

Morrill Tariff: 1861

A wave of southern resignations from Congress after the election of Abraham Lincoln allows northern congressmen to raise tariffs once again.

Mongrel Tariff: 1883

President Chester Arthur reduces some tariffs, keeps others and enters into reciprocal trade agreements with some nations.

Dingley Act: 1897

President William McKinley brings back protectionism by doubling tariff rates for wool, linen, silk, china and sugar.

Underwood Tariff: 1913

Democrats replace high tariffs with a new federal income tax.

Emergency Tariff: 1921

Passed by Republicans in hopes of saving U.S. farming operations.

Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act: 1930

Protectionist law raises tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods to their second-highest rate in 100 years. This law and retaliatory tariffs by other nations lead to a reduction in U.S. trade by more than half at a time when the country could have used more trade: During the Great Depression.

Reciprocal Tariff Act: 1934

Authorizes President Franklin Roosevelt to negotiate 32 reciprocal trade agreements with 27 countries over the next 11 years.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT): 1947

Signed by 23 nations as part of a United Nations effort to reduce trade barriers like tariffs and quotas. Would stand until the World Trade Organization is created in 1994.

Trade Agreements Act: 1979

Since passage of the Smoot-Hawley Act in 1930, the U.S. government has been required to buy its own goods from U.S. suppliers. This law gives the president the ability to waive this policy for imports from 57 countries.

Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act: 1988

Authorizes President Ronald Reagan to enact tariffs on imports from nations that place protectionist tariffs on U.S.-made goods.

World Trade Organization: 1994

Agreement signed by 124 nations to replace GATT in resolving trade disputes and helping to negotiate agreements.

Trump Tariffs: 2018

President Donald Trump increases tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel, aluminum and pretty much everything from China.

Sources:“Tariff History of the United States” by F.W. Taussig, “Historical Statistics of the United States” by the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. State Department, U.S. Congress, U.S. International Trade Commission, Office of the United States Trade Representative, World Trade Organization, The World Bank, The Trade Partnership, “Perspectives on Trade” by Jean Heilman Grier of Djaghe LLC, Pew Research Center, The Journal of Economic History, The New York Times, The Economist, Agence France-Presse