WASHINGTON — Breaking with Republican orthodoxy, a new Trump administration will work quickly to re-do the North American Free Trade Agreement, a massive trade pact with Canada and Mexico that has boosted trade but still stings laid off workers across the Midwest, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for commerce secretary told Congress on Wednesday.
At his confirmation hearing, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross said all free trade agreements should be systematically re-opened every few years to make sure they are working in the best interests of the U.S.
Ross said he is pro-free trade, but noted his close relationship with the United Steelworkers union as proof that he will fight to protect American jobs. The union has endorsed him.
“NAFTA is logically the first thing for us to deal with,” Ross said. “We must solidify relationships in the best way we can in our own territory before we go off to other jurisdictions.”
“That will be a very, very early topic in this administration,” Ross added. “I think all aspects of NAFTA will be put on the table.”
Trump’s views on trade are at odds with most congressional Republicans, who generally support America’s trade pacts as a way to boost U.S. exports and to provide affordable consumer goods.
But trade is a divisive issue in much of the country, and Trump’s attacks on NAFTA and other pacts during the election played well in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — all states the businessman won.
NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton, with broad support among Republicans in Congress.
Senators from both political parties were deferential to Ross at the nearly four-hour hearing, which was much more subdued than the confirmation hearings of other Trump nominees.
Ross’ remarks on trade were welcomed by some Democrats, who are generally less enthusiastic than Republicans about trade agreements.
Afterward, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Ross allayed fears that a Trump administration would start a trade war.
Thune, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said he had been concerned about some of Trump’s rhetoric on trade, “specifically a 35 percent tariff.”
“But I thought (Ross) did a really good job today of talking about enforcing the law, examining on a recurring basis these trade agreements, see how they’re operating, what’s working, what’s not. I was comfortable with the way he addressed those issues,” Thune added.
Trump has threatened to impose a 35 percent tariff on U.S. companies that move operations abroad and then attempt to import goods back into the U.S.
The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the U.S. and abroad. The department handles trade issues, working to attract foreign investment to the U.S. The department also oversees agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct a census in 2020.
Ross said he has experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.
Worth an estimated $2.9 billion, Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. Supporters say that makes him ideal to represent American business interests abroad.
Unlike the president-elect, Ross has agreed to divest himself from a vast financial empire.
Among the businesses he will separate himself from is WL Ross & Co., the private equity firm he founded in 2000.
During Ross’ hearing, Thune revealed that Ross had a household employee from 2009 to 2016 who could not provide documentation that he or she was in the U.S. legally.
Ross said the employee provided a driver’s license and a Social Security number when hired. Ross said he re-checked the documentation for all of his household employees after he was nominated, and the employee could not provide it. Ross said the employee was fired.
“We did the best that we thought we could do in order to verify the legality of the employment and it turned out that was incorrect,” Ross said. “But we did pay all the withholdings, so did that employee.”
Such transgressions have derailed Cabinet nominees in the past. But Sen. Ben Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the committee, questioned Ross only briefly about it.