U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell stood before the leaders of Kentucky’s bourbon industry and told them that Democrats are “coming after you” with higher taxes. What distillers really wanted to hear is that, with all of his power, McConnell would end President Trump’s tariffs, which they say caused a 27% drop in spirits exports to the European Union last year. He didn’t tell the distillers that. Mitch McConnell has betrayed his state for political self-preservation… for Trump.
But, what’s new? He’s done the same thing to Kentucky coal miners for decades. The Distilled Spirits Council introduced McConnell’s remarks by noting that during his time in the Senate “McConnell has championed tax and trade policies that support the industry.” Yet, when it comes to the distilling industry’s No. 1 concern today — costly tariffs thanks to Trump’s trade war — McConnell could only muster a passing comment about it. “I am not much of a fan of the trade wars, and I know you’re not either,” McConnell told them, before diverting their certain disappointment with bluster about how “this has been an administration, I think, in conjunction with the Republican congress, the first two years, that has made significant progress as a country.”
This apparent impotence stands in contrast to McConnell’s argument, in reelection after reelection, that he alone can bend Washington to the needs of Kentucky. When it comes to standing up to Trump, he admits to the leaders of Kentucky’s biggest industry that he is powerless to help them… or doesn’t want to risk it. After the event, McConnell told WDRB reporter Lawrence Smith that he “has had very little impact on the president” who is “a big fan of tariffs.” McConnell continued, saying, “It’s been kind of an ongoing battle, but the discussions are still underway, and I think there’s some level of optimism.”
The Senate majority leader knows better. He knows that the U.S. Constitution explicitly provides Congress the authority to levy tariffs. In other words, McConnell could do something about Trump’s tariffs but chooses not to out of political self-preservation. To be fair, the Senate abdicating its authority to the president didn’t begin with McConnell or under Trump. It began in the early 20th century when Congress authorized presidents to levy tariffs during national emergencies. In 2018, the Trump administration cited national security under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 to impose global tariffs on steel and aluminum — including on the European Union.
The EU retaliated by imposing a 25% tariff on bourbon. Why bourbon? Because the EU wanted to target the home state of the top American official who could rebuke Trump and end the trade war. Instead, McConnell is turning his back on distillers. He’s selling out the entire state. The bourbon industry is an $8.6 billion industry in Kentucky, employing more than 20,000 with an annual payroll exceeding $1 billion. Recently, Gov. Andy Beshear announced that Kentucky became the No. 1 state in the nation for whiskey exports — $485 million to 93 countries. Overall, spirits contribute over $235 million in state and local taxes each year.
So much for encouraging bourbonism. “The damage to American whiskey exports is now accelerating and this is collateral damage from ongoing global trade disputes,” said Distilled Spirits Council CEO Chris Swonger in a report last year. How does McConnell get away with it? He counts on: 1) The bourbon industry’s silence — either acquiescence or fearfulness — in calling out McConnell’s ineffectual leadership, or 2) his ability to distract voters from realizing how he has traded the state for personal political goals. He told WDRB’s Smith: “I’ve made every effort to try to acquaint the administration with the unique bourbon industry. It’s not on everybody’s mind when they get into these big trade talks. But I’m thinking — I’m hoping — it’s going to have a good ending.”
If he were being honest, “every effort” would be McConnell reasserting the Senate’s authority to legislate an end to the trade war. The reality is he will not make any effort for anything that doesn’t help his reelection or preserve the GOP majority in the Senate — in that order. And he counts on Kentucky to be grateful for his abuse, like Kevin Bacon in “Animal House” — on all fours being paddled by Trump, asking, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
But, again, what’s new?