And the administration’s aim, he said, is to have more free trade – not less. " But he did acknowledge that Commerce is still in the process of training officials to handle the exclusion requests – though he blamed that delay on Congress. Ross said at the time that any resulting price increase would be only a fraction of a cent.
Senators of both parties lit into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Wednesday over President Donald Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, saying they’re damaging U.S. manufacturing and agriculture without showing a clear strategy for countering China.
“I just don’t see how the damage posed on all of these sectors could possibly advance our national security,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said during a hearing on the president’s trade actions. At the same time, he said, they “utterly fail” to address China’s overproduction.
Hatch also expressed outrage over a similar investigation by the administration into whether auto imports threaten national security. A 25 percent tariff on an average-priced imported car, he said, could erase 10 percent of a median U.S. household’s $59,000 income.
"That’s why I call tariffs a tax on American families,” Hatch said.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who noted that the tariffs are triggering Canadian plans to retaliate against U.S. ketchup, said the administration’s justification for imposing the trade actions doesn’t line up.
"I wish we would stop invoking national security because that’s not what this is about," Toomey said. "This is about economic nationalism.”
Meanwhile, top committee Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon criticized Ross for what he called the baffling process of deciding what products to exclude from the aluminum and steel tariffs. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that it has processed fewer than 100 of more than 20,000 requests for product-specific exclusions.
"America’s small businesses believe they are being held hostage in a bureaucratic twilight zone, waiting to see whether they’re going to escape," Wyden said.
Ross offered a forceful defense of Trump’s trade actions. "The tariff actions taken by the president are necessary to protect America’s essential steel and aluminum industries," he told the committee, adding global excess capacity of the materials was "weakening our domestic economy and therefore threaten to impair our national security."
And the administration’s aim, he said, is to have more free trade – not less.
“The president’s objective is not to end up with high tariffs, and his objective is not to end up in a trade war," Ross said. "His objective is to get to a lowering of barriers, both tariffs and non-tariff ones, and to protect intellectual property. … The purpose of this is to get to an endgame that is much closer to free trade than what we’ve been before.”
The hearing comes as Trump and his administration are facing increasing backlash from U.S. lawmakers from both parties over the tariffs specifically as well as its trade policy in general.
As for the exclusions from the tariffs, Ross told the committee that his agency was making an "unprecedented effort" to process the requests "expeditiously." He also brushed off delays by noting that any exclusions that are granted will be granted retroactively, to the date when the request was initially filed.
But Wyden said even people in Ross’ department seem baffled by the exclusion process. He cited a Washington Post report that quoted a senior Commerce official as saying the process was going to be "unbelievably random" – and noting that staff to evaluate the requests had only begun to receive training last week.
Ross disputed the report, calling it "simply wrong." But he did acknowledge that Commerce is still in the process of training officials to handle the exclusion requests – though he blamed that delay on Congress.
"What is correct is that it look a long time for Congress to give us, through the appropriations process, the right to add people who we had requested, and they had not given us the full amount that we had requested," Ross said. "Those are the people who are being trained."
Hatch, meanwhile, chided Ross for a television appearance in which the commerce secretary held up a can of Campbell’s soup while trying to downplay the steel tariffs. Ross said at the time that any resulting price increase would be only a fraction of a cent.
“A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary,” Hatch said.
Victoria Guida contributed to this report.
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