Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

How Joe Biden can get America building again

Like a lot of people stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been having some work done on my house. One of the things I’ve learned is that the price of building materials, especially lumber, is insane. Indeed, some lengths and varieties of wood are simply unavailable, or you wait months to get them.

There are lots of reasons for this. Wildfires in the West. Lumber producers and middleman, who shrank inventories at the start of the pandemic thinking no one would want to build, only to find that everyone decided to remodel their homes because what else were they going to do?

But part of the problem is also that the Trump administration slapped tariffs onto Canadian lumber imports a couple of years ago. This led to higher home prices even before the pandemic. But it’s gotten way worse since. Prices have literally doubled since the spring. The National Association of Home Builders recently estimated that Canadian lumber tariffs increase the price of the average home by $16,000–hardly an unbiased source since builders want lower-cost materials. Still, it was enough to get 100 lawmakers from both parties to send a letter to Trump, asking him to get rid of the tariffs.

That’s obviously not going to happen during Trump’s ranting last days in office. But it makes me think that one of the first things Joe Biden should announce once he’s inaugurated, or even before, is that he’ll reverse Trump’s Canadian lumber tariffs. He can do so by executive order–that’s how Trump imposed them.

Not the biggest deal in the world, I know. But as we are all painfully aware, if Biden is facing a Republican-controlled senate, the prospect of him signing ambitious bills anytime soon is remote. Even if the Democrats manage to win both the January runoffs in Georgia, the senate would only barely be in Democratic hands (a 50-50 split with the vice president breaking ties). And with a couple of vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents facing the voters in 2022, like Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the kind of big, sweeping, FDR-like legislation Biden ran on is also unlikely to pass.

The main way the president-elect will be able to advance his agenda is through executive actions like this. Rolling back tariffs that jack up housing costs would be the kind of gesture that your Home Depot dad buying planks for his deck, or a young couple buying a first home, could appreciate. It would literally be a way to “get America building again” by repudiating a specific policy of his predecessor.

Of course, if this is such a good idea, why didn’t the Biden policy team think to announce something like this during the campaign? Best I can tell is that Biden has complicated views about trade deals and the one with Canada specifically. He probably doesn’t want to unilaterally give up a potential bargaining chip he can use for a broader trade deal. But given that the World Trade Organization ruled in August that the basic argument the U.S. government made to support the tariffs and has been making for many years–that Canada unfairly subsidizes its lumber industry–is without merit, it may not be much of a chip to give up. Biden also has to weigh that lumber production is a huge industry in blue states (Oregon, Washington, California) as well as ones turning purple (Georgia, North Carolina).

In the weeks and months ahead, the Washington Monthly will have more to say about what the Biden administration can achieve through executive action. If you think this kind of policy-focused journalism is important, there’s something you can do to help: make a donation during our year-end fundraising drive. In fact, do it right now. Give whatever you can—$10, $50, $1,000—before December 31, and your contribution will be matched, dollar for dollar, thanks to a generous challenge grant we’ve received from NewsMatch, an organization dedicated to helping nonprofit news organizations like the Monthly. As a nonprofit, we can’t do the work we do without your support. (It also means your donation is tax-deductible.) As a token of our gratitude, if you give $50 or more, you’ll receive a free one-year subscription to the print edition of the Washington Monthly.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. He was an editor at the magazine from 1986 to 1988.