Ross countered, arguing that “actions taken by the president are necessary to revive America’s essential steel and aluminum industries.” He added that “allowing imports to continue unchecked threatens to impair our national security.”
The tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum — levied on key U.S. allies including Canada and the European Union — were initiated by the administration under a little-used provision of trade law that allows tariffs to be imposed on the basis of national security. The provision gives the administration more leeway to make trade policy unilaterally.
The tariffs are a culmination of the protectionist threats that President Trump campaigned on and mark the clearest dividing line between Trump and a Republican Party that has traditionally embraced free trade.
At the hearing, senators questioned the national security rationale of imposing high tariffs on friendly countries.
“I wish we would stop invoking national security because that’s not what this is about,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said. “This is about economic nationalism.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of GOP leadership, told Ross, “This thing seems to be escalating out of control fairly quickly.”
Yet despite the concerns, Republican senators declined to take what was likely their best chance to intervene when leaders blocked a vote on a bill by Toomey and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to give Congress veto power over tariffs invoked in the name of national security. Instead, many Republicans have said they believe their best chance of influencing administration policy is in trying to persuade Trump to back off his protectionist impulses.
As of June 1, the 25 percent tariff applies to imported steel products from all countries except Argentina, Australia, Brazil and South Korea, according to a Finance Committee fact sheet. Imported steel products from Argentina, Brazil and South Korea are subject to quotas that prohibit any imports above the quota levels.
The 10 percent tariff applies to imported aluminum products from all countries except Argentina, Australia and Brazil.
In response, the targeted nations have announced a series of reciprocal tariffs and retaliatory steps, which senators said are causing prices to rise for U.S. manufacturers and other businesses.
The administration’s tariffs against Mexico and Canada have been seen as an attempt to gain leverage as the administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is widely supported by congressional Republicans, most of whom do not want Trump to follow through on his campaign-trail threats to withdraw from the agreement. Negotiations have sputtered, but Ross expressed optimism that they would pick up again after the Mexican elections, and that the ultimate result would be an improved trade pact.
Some senators appeared skeptical as they questioned the administration’s tactics.
“What is it about the Canadian steel industry that is a national security threat?” Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) asked Ross.
Ross acknowledged that, in terms of dollar value, the United States actually has a trade surplus in steel with Canada. But he said the administration’s approach is necessary to persuade other nations to help curb China’s practice of routing steel and aluminum to the United States through other countries.
“The only way we’re going to solve the global steel overcapacity is getting all the countries to play ball with us,” Ross said. He contended that even as other countries are “complaining bitterly” they are also taking steps to put up barriers to China, which if taken earlier would have prevented the problems that Trump is trying to address.
Ross also argued that some price volatility is due to what he termed “antisocial behavior by participants in the industry” who are engaging in speculative activity. He announced that the department was launching an investigation to determine “whether there are people who are illegitimately profiteering.”
Trump has also escalated his tariff threats against China, which Republican senators told Ross was triggering dangerously rising prices in agriculture over fears of retaliation.
Several senators told stories about businesses in their districts suffering from the tariffs who have applied for exclusions offered by the administration to companies that cannot get steel or aluminum from other sources. They barraged him with complaints about the exclusion process, which has been overloaded by demand and proven difficult for smaller businesses to navigate.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) criticized the exclusion process as “chaotic and incompetent.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said, “These businesses are paying the price for the administration’s negotiating strategy.”
Senators also confronted Ross about the administration’s potential plans to impose tariffs on imported autos and parts, also in the name of national security.
“There has been no decision made as to whether to recommend tariffs at all” on autos, Ross told the senators.
Hatch warned Ross against such tariffs, telling him: “A car isn’t a can of soup, Mr. Secretary” — a reference to a television appearance Ross made in March where he defended the steel tariffs while holding up a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup he said would cost only six-tenths of a cent more with the tariffs.