WASHINGTON – Pointing to damage done to home-state companies, lawmakers from both parties Wednesday criticized tariffs the Trump administration has imposed on imported steel and aluminum products in the name of national security.
The Trump administration has turned to a little-used weapon in trade policy: Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. It empowers the president to impose unlimited tariffs if the Commerce Department finds that imports threaten national security. Trump imposed the tariffs in March, exempting several allies with a reprieve that expired in May. Trading partners have responded by slapping tariffs on a wide range of U.S.-made products.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., sparred with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, calling tariffs’ “a very 1980s retro policy” and saying they were hurting Washington apples, cherries and seafood sales from the nation’s most trade-dependent state.
President Donald Trump’s objective is not to end up with high tariffs, or in a trade war, Ross said. “He’s made that pretty clear.”
Cantwell asked Ross twice whether the nation was in a trade war. The second time, Ross quoted Trump as saying “we’ve been in a trade war forever. The difference is now the troops are coming to the ramparts.”
Farmers and small businesses who are fighting to get into foreign markets are being hurt, losing shelf space in other countries stores Cantwell countered. They’re losing sales and some may go out of business.
“I don’t think you’re empathetic enough to agriculture,” she said. “I would say, Mr. Secretary, trade wars are not good. They are very damaging.”
Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said rising steel costs since the imposition of the tariffs have made it harder for a Salt Lake City company to win contracts for custom industrial equipment, while pork farmers in his state are facing retaliatory tariffs from their two biggest markets, Mexico and China.
“I just don’t see how the damage posed on all of these sectors could possibly advance our national security,” Hatch said.
Ross defended the tariffs as necessary to revive America’s steel and aluminum industries. He said the tariffs will reduce imports to levels needed for the steel and aluminum industries in the U.S. to achieve long-term viability.
Because of the tariffs, Ross says steel and aluminum producers are already restarting idled factories in Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky.
In addition to the steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump has ordered 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods in retaliation for Beijing’s forced transfer of U.S. technology and for intellectual property theft. Those tariffs, set to start taking effect July 6, have been matched by China’s threat to penalize U.S. exports. Trump has proposed imposing duties on up to $400 billion more if China doesn’t further open its markets to U.S. companies and reduce its trade surplus with the United States. China, in turn, says it will retaliate.
Ross said that applying pressure is the only way the U.S. can get China and other countries to curb “untoward practices” on trade, particularly when it comes to technology companies.
“The purpose of this is to get an end-game that’s much closer to free trade than anything the world has seen before,” Ross said.
. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the administration’s most obvious accomplishment so far has been to unite “our allies and China against us.”
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