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Sen. Rob Portman seeks more scrutiny of tariffs imposed for national security reasons

February 12, 2019

Sen. Rob Portman seeks more scrutiny of tariffs imposed for national security reasons

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sen. Rob Portman wasn’t pleased last year when President Donald Trump used a rare national security waiver to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from almost every nation in the world, leading other countries to impose retaliatory tariffs on products like soybeans grown in Ohio.

Worried that Trump will use the same process to impose tariffs on imported cars and parts when the Commerce Department releases an upcoming investigation on whether the imports damage national security, the Ohio Republican wants Congress to make it harder for presidents to invoke the previously rare procedure.

Portman says the 25 percent auto tariffs Trump has discussed would likely increase domestic car prices by $2,000 and the cost of foreign cars by $6,000. He predicts other nations would impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. cars and auto parts, and the ensuing trade war could put up to 624,000 auto jobs at risk.

Last week, Portman led a bipartisan group of legislators to introduce a bill that would make the Defense Department justify any national security rationale for imposing new “Section 232” tariffs. His bill would also let Congress nix proposed national security tariffs by passing a joint resolution of disapproval. Right now, the Commerce Department decides whether imports threaten national security, and Congress can only disapprove of Section 232 sanctions on oil imports.

In a Tuesday morning meeting with reporters, Portman, who served as the nation’s top trade negotiator during George W. Bush’s presidency, said that presidents should be able to respond quickly to trade threats that jeopardize national security, but the process has been misused. He notes that the Defense Department insists steel imports don’t pose a national security threat because there’s enough domestic production to meet U.S. military needs.

He said the legislation introduced in both Houses of Congress would not affect previously imposed tariffs, and is backed by the nation’s largest automakers. While the legislation didn’t go anywhere when it was introduced during the last Congress, Portman said he’s optimistic it can pass this year because it’s got support from the Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Republican chair of the Senate Finance Committees, which must sign off on its passage.

“This is timely, because we don’t want to move forward with the [Section 232 procedure] on automobiles and not have the ability to push back on that,” said Portman.

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has not taken a stance on Portman’s bill, says his spokeswoman, Jenny Donohue.

“Senator Brown supports the section 232 steel tariffs, though he wants them to be lifted on Canada and Mexico,” she said. “Should the Finance Committee consider bills to change the section 232 statute, Sen. Brown will evaluate each of them individually. But he is unlikely to support anything that would weaken any trade enforcement statutes.”

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