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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross assured senators Thursday he’s negotiating to ‘minimize the problem,’ but ‘the gap is wide.’
WASHINGTON — Several senators whose states are already feeling the effects of escalating U.S. trade tensions with China pressed Wilbur Ross at Thursday’s Senate Appropriations hearing on the Trump administration’s tariff strategy.
The Commerce secretary visited China last week, where he said both sides delivered specific sets of bids and asks, but “the gap is wide.”
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who chairs the committee, said his state is a leader in beef, pork, wheat and soybean production, but Chinese tariffs imposed in response to President Trump's’ own have done “significant economic harm.” Kansas grows more sorghum than any other state, and 50 percent of its product is exported—90 percent to China.
“Retaliatory tariffs announced by China have effectively shut down the sorghum export market,” Moran said. “Meaning that Kansas farmers are feeling the impact now.”
Ross assured Moran agriculture “featured quite prominently” in his discussions with China.
“We’re all well aware that it’s horribly unfair for one industry to bear the brunt of retaliation in our efforts to help other parts of the economy,” Ross said. “So we will do our level best to minimize the problem and to maximize the support we can provide in helping them.”
Meanwhile Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, took issue with the administration’s 30 percent tariff on solar panel imports set in January. Maryland’s solar industry, which employed 5,400 people installing 720 megawatts of power in 2017, has lost 784 positions since the tariffs went into effect.
Nationally the industry expects to lose 23,000 jobs in 2018, Van Hollen added, though Ross said tax benefits expiring last year also play into that decline.
“There have been some foreign providers of solar material that have announced they will be opening solar facilities here in the states,” Ross said. “And that had been one of the president’s objectives in putting the tariffs on.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the committee’s ranking member, said she appreciated the administration's effort to get tough on international competitors who “tilt the playing field in their favor” but not in a “unilateral way that causes an unnecessary trade war.”
The Commerce Department has received 8,700 requests for individual product exemptions from tariffs, Ross said, one company responsible for 1,167 inquiries alone. In the last 12 days, the agency has built up a backlog of 2,200 requests, prompting Moran to inquire if Ross needed more resources to enact Trump’s trade agenda.
Ross has proposed a department budget of $9.8 billion for fiscal year 2019, a $1.3 billion decrease from the 2018 omnibus spending bill. Shaheen said the cuts would hurt “crucial economic development and manufacturing programs” for states like the Economic Development Administration and Manufacturing Extension Partnership, both of which saw Congress increase their funding in the omnibus.
“Those programs have been invaluable in my state,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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