Josh Hawley Thinks the White House Can Force an Aluminum Plant To Stay Open

“The modern presidency has tremendous powers, of course, but this is still quite the stretch. Hawley is asking the White House to engage in central planning at an absurdly micro-level—and there is, thankfully, no law that actually allows the president to order a factory to continue producing aluminum if its owners have decided to stop.

Even so, the fact that Hawley is even making this request illustrates something important about how Republicans now view the relationship between government and business. It also says something about how the failures of protectionism will spur calls for more protectionism. And, finally, about how the phrase “national security” has become warped beyond recognition to justify further governmental intrusions into the economy.”

“It might shock Hawley and some of his colleagues to learn that the Defense Production Act is not a set of magic words that allow presidents to do whatever they’d like. In fact, all the law does is require that businesses fulfill orders from the government before other orders from private customers.

That’s because it is a law meant to be used during wartime. Here’s how it works: Let’s say there’s a war going on and the U.S. military desperately needs 10,000 widgets to ensure victory, lasting peace, and blah blah blah. The Pentagon sends a guy to the widget factory in Albuquerque to request those 10,000 widgets, but the owner of the factory says the 10,000 widgets sitting on his lot have already been purchased by his friend Bob and that the government will have to wait until the factory can produce another 10,000 widgets—so come back in two weeks.

 Ah, but wait! The president just signed an order invoking the Defense Production Act for widgets, so now the guy from the Pentagon gets to cut the line. He can buy those 10,000 widgets, and Bob has to wait for the next set to come off the assembly line.

That’s what the Defense Production Act allows. It can’t conjure up new solar panels or additional supplies of insulation out of thin air. It doesn’t allow the government to put a gun to anyone’s head and force them to make baby formula or to keep an aluminum smelter running.”  

“Remember those 10 percent tariffs on imported aluminum imposed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018? That was naked protectionism, and the announced closure of this Missouri smelter seems like pretty good evidence that it failed. There’s other evidence too: As Hawley points out in his letter, this is the third aluminum smelter in the U.S. to announce plans to downsize in recent months. Unfortunately, the failures of protectionism only ever seem to spur calls for more protectionism.”

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