WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 – Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Commerce Department and play a major role in international trade negotiations, spent much of a four-hour hearing today working to calm senators’ fears of losing U.S. export markets because of Trump’s aggressive trade stances.
“There are plenty of opportunities to expand our exports,” the 70-year-old billionaire businessman told lawmakers. “The number-one objective will be expanding our exports.”
More than one member of the Senate Commerce Committee asked Ross what he thought about the 35 percent tariff that Trump has threatened to levy on imports from companies that relocate factories outside the U.S. and ship products back across the border. Each time, Ross played down the tariff threat, but said sometimes they are necessary.
“I think tariffs play a role as a negotiating tool and, if necessary, to punish offenders who don’t play by the rules,” Ross said.
He also laid out proposals to encourage more foreign companies to set up shop in the U.S. Congress could attract more manufacturing to the U.S. by cutting corporate tax rates, cutting red tape and lowering energy costs, he said.
“I’m much more in favor of carrots than sticks,” he said.
Ross also told lawmakers they shouldn’t worry about the U.S. losing export markets during the Trump administration.
“I am not anti-trade. I am pro-trade, but I’m pro sensible trade – not pro trade that is to the disadvantage of the American market and the American manufacturing community,” Ross said. “I think we should provide access to our markets to those countries who play by the rules and give everyone a fair chance to compete. Those who do not, should not get away with it. They should be punished severely.”
But that doesn’t mean Ross supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the 12-nation trade deal involving the U.S. and other Pacific Rim nations including Japan, Mexico. Ross said that at one time he thought TPP looked like a good pact, but changed his mind after looking into it in depth. He told lawmakers he prefers less complex bilateral trade deals.
A small group of protesters at the hearing weren’t convinced, breaking out in chants that “Ross supports TPP.” They were quickly ushered out of the chamber by security.
Another concern Ross addressed at the hearing was that as Commerce Secretary he would overshadow the role played by the U.S. Trade Representative in the Trump administration. He acknowledged that he will be have exceptionally large responsibilities in international trade negotiations, but also stressed that the role of the USTR would not be diminished.
“We are well aware of the … powers of the U.S. Trade Representative, and, obviously, neither the president nor I will do anything that is averse to the Congressional mandate given to the (USTR),” Ross said. “I think it’s important to bring all the intellectual resources and experience that we can to help (Trump) solve trade issues, and there will be a collaborative process among the (USTR), myself and Peter Navarro, the White House National Trade Council director.”
Robert Lighthizer, formerly a deputy USTR under President Ronald Reagan, is Trump’s nominee to be the next U.S. Trade Rep.
Ross said the North American Free Trade Agreement will likely be the first major target of Trump’s top trade officials.
Trump famously promised during his presidential campaign to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the trade pact that the U.S., Mexico and Canada ratified in 1993.
Ross did not get into specifics, but did promise that the trade deal would go under review almost immediately.
“NAFTA is logically the first thing for us to deal with,” he said. “I think all aspects of NAFTA will be put on the table …”
One country that Ross did come down tough on was China.
“China is the most protectionist country … with high tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers,” he said. “They talk much more about free trade than they actually practice. We would like to level that playing field and bring the realities closer to the rhetoric.”
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Commerce Committee and a proponent of strong exports, said he found Ross’s remarks comforting.
Thune told reporters that he had been concerned about some of the anti-trade rhetoric in recent months, especially concerning tariffs, but Ross allayed those concerned.
“I was comfortable with the way he addressed those issues today,” Thune said. “He made it abundantly clear that he thinks that in order for the country’s economy to grow, we’ve got to export.”
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