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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Defends U.S. Trade Policies


Senators lashed out today over the Trump administration's tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross fielded complaints from Democrats and Republicans about lost jobs and damage to U.S. companies. NPR's John Ydstie reports.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: The administration has justified its tariffs on steel and aluminum by invoking national security concerns. The White House says the tariffs are needed to stop China from overproducing the metals, dumping them on global markets, harming U.S. steelmakers and costing American jobs. But metals produced in Canada, Mexico and the European Union are also subject to the tariffs - 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. Lawmakers from Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah to Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado asked Ross why the U.S. is punishing its allies. Here's Bennet.


MICHAEL BENNET: What is the national security basis for the tariff that you have placed on Canada? I don't understand it.

YDSTIE: Secretary Ross responded this way.


WILBUR ROSS: China is a problem for the U.S. because what they've been doing is masking their exports to us by shipping them through other countries.

YDSTIE: Including Canada. But Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania pointed out that Canada is now retaliating. And one of Pennsylvania's iconic products, Heinz Ketchup, is in the crosshairs.


PAT TOOMEY: The Canadians have decided that they're going to impose huge taxes on the sale of American ketchup. It's hard to imagine that this doesn't dramatically erode their market share.

YDSTIE: And, Toomey says, that gives the company an incentive to move some production to Canada, costing American jobs. Toomey is a co-sponsor of legislation that would give the Congress, not the president, the power to decide when a national security threat justifies trade sanctions.

Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill described the case of Mid Continent Nail Corporation in Missouri. It's the largest producer of steel nails in the country and employs 500 workers. It's suffered because the price of the steel used to produce nails is up 20 percent, forcing Mid Continent to raise its prices.


CLAIRE MCCASKILL: So far, they have lost almost half of their business in one month. The customers can easily source nails manufactured in other countries. And the company believes they'll be out of business by Labor Day.

YDSTIE: McCaskill and other lawmakers complained that the number of jobs lost in steel-using firms like Mid Continent will far outnumber the jobs created in companies that make steel. Secretary Ross noted that U.S. companies could apply for exclusions to avoid the tariffs. He said the Commerce Department has received more than 20,000 exclusion requests so far but has fully processed only 98. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.