Senators lash at Ross over Trump tariff policies

It was an equal-opportunity tongue lashing June 20 as members of the Senate Finance Committee attacked Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross over President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, saying the policy is harming the United States economy while doing nothing to stop China’s unfair trade practices.

Reports say Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-UT, said the tariffs are raising prices for certain U.S. manufacturers by 20 percent or more, while retaliatory tariffs by other countries are hurting American farmers.

“I just don’t see how the damage posed on all of these sectors could possibly advance our national security,” Hatch said. “These tariffs do not support U.S. national security; instead, they harm American manufacturers, damage our economy, hurt American consumers, and disrupt our relationship with our long-term allies, while giving China a free pass.”

“The lessons of the steel and aluminum tariffs are clear—these tariffs do not support U.S. national security,” Hatch told Ross.

Hatch also said he was shocked when the White House called for an investigation into whether tariffs are needed on auto imports for national security reasons.

“I’m shocked that anyone would consider making it more expensive,” he said.

Hatch added, poking at a Ross comment, “A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary.”

Earlier this year, Ross held up soup and beer cans during a television interview and argued the metal tariffs would only cost pennies per can and not raise consumer prices.

Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-OR, said the Trump administration’s major achievement from the tariffs so far “is sowing a lot of chaos. Every week it seems like there is more and more bedlam.

Wyden added, “It is also frustrating to watch as the administration’s trade moves seem more like knee-jerk impulses than any kind of carefully thought-out strategy,” also criticizing the process of excluding important products needed by American businesses from tariffs.

Small businesses, Wyden said, “believe they are being held hostage in a bureaucratic twilight zone waiting to see if they’re going to escape,” calling the process slow and difficult.

Wyden quoted a top Commerce official who said in a report that the exclusion process would be “unbelievably random” and that some companies are “going to get screwed.”

Ross, meanwhile, defended the tariffs as necessary to protect American businesses.

“Actions taken by the president are necessary to revive America’s essential steel and aluminum industries,” Ross said. “Allowing imports to continue unchecked threatens to impair our national security.

“Idled steel and aluminum capacity is being restarted as we sit here in Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky. This administration is standing up for American families, American businesses and American workers by taking action to reduce imports that threaten our national security.”

That statement led Sen. Michael Bennet, D-CO, to ask, “What is it about the Canadian steel industry that is a national security threat?”

Ross said that while the U.S. does have a trade surplus in steel with Canada the administration’s strategy is to stop China from sending their products through other countries that receive better tariff treatment.

“The only way we’re going to solve the global steel overcapacity is getting all the countries to play ball with us,” Ross said.

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Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, delivered to Ross what he called “the farm report” of slashed commodity prices caused by what he said are the effects of the tariffs, including an 80 percent price loss on grain sorghum because of tariffs on washing machines and solar panels.

“Mexico is buying their wheat from Argentina and their corn from Brazil. We are in a situation where we are not a reliable supplier,” Roberts told Ross. “Once you lose that, you’re in a lot of trouble in the trade business.”

Roberts told the story of Mike Bergmeier, owner of Shield Agriculture Equipment of South Hutchinson, Kansas, who called Roberts to tell his office of the effects of tariffs on his business, since his company manufactures a tillage blade made with steel from a Manitoba, Canada, mill that is the only mill on the continent that makes the specific type of steel used for that blade.

Shield is seeking an exemption exclusion from the tariff, as it adds $85,000 to the cost of producing one blade.

“What will be the impact of tariffs on steel and aluminum?” Roberts asked rhetorically. “Mike Bergmeier knows and so do many small- and medium-sized enterprises that are seeing price increases now and have been for months.”

Ross said Shield’s predicament was what the exclusion was made for, and if no U.S. manufacturer complained, there would be no reason not to issue a tariff exclusion.

Ross admitted U.S. allies are “complaining bitterly” about the tariffs, but Ross also said they are finally taking action, including by implementing safeguards against Chinese steel in their supply chains.

That reply didn’t stop the criticism, even from members of Trump’s own party.

“It sounds to me like we’ve got a government-run mercantilist economy, as opposed to a free-market economy,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA.

Added Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, “We’re picking winners and losers.”

Sen. John Thune, R-SD, said, “This thing seems to be escalating out of control fairly quickly.”

Following the hearing, Americans for Farmers & Families released a statement from Casey Guernsey, former Missouri state legislator and spokesman for AFF’s “Retaliation Hurts Rural Families” initiative. It read in part: “I want to thank members of the Finance Committee for taking the time to assess the adverse impact 232 tariffs and trade uncertainty will have on American exporters and rural communities. Sen. Pat Roberts and many of his colleagues rightly pointed out in their questioning to Secretary Ross that crop prices are already being impacted and trade uncertainty is resulting in our most important agriculture markets looking elsewhere for products.

“I recognize and appreciate President Trump’s commitment to protecting Americans’ interests through trade policies, but retaliation now poses a real and present threat to hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs and more than 7,000 agriculture jobs alone. The costs from retaliation threaten to unravel the economic and income security Americans have gained as a result of President Trump’s tax cuts.”

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].