Washington — It’s likely that financier and plastics executive Wilbur Ross — the Trump administration’s nominee to be Commerce Secretary — will wield much more influence in shaping government policy than most previous occupants of that post, traditionally seen as one of the minor cabinet positions.
Ross, chairman of plastics distribution firm Nexeo Solutions Inc., wasted no time at his Jan. 18 Senate confirmation hearing outlining where he hoped to use that influence — pushing a harder government line on trade.
“I think I’ve probably had more direct experience than any prior Cabinet nominee has had with unfair trade in the steel business, in the textile business, in the auto parts business and other sectors,” he said in a prepared opening statement.
“The United States should provide that access to nations who agree to play by our standards of fair trade,” he said, but added that “we should not put up with malicious trading activities, state owned enterprises, or subsidized production.”
The 79-year-old Ross is also the founder and former chairman of automotive injection molder IAC Group.
Nexeo is one of North America’s largest resin distribution firms and, according to Plastics News data, IAC is the second-largest injection molding company in North America.
As part of an agreement to comply with government ethics rules, Ross, upon his confirmation, will resign as chairman of Nexeo, along with many other corporate boards, and divest of much of his other direct investments in businesses.
Several Democratic members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation applauded Ross for divesting himself of much of his reported $2.9 billion in wealth, but pressed Ross to comment on whether President-elect Trump should similarly divest from his holdings to avoid conflicts.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal argued, for example, that there could be conflicts with Trump companies over business dealings before Commerce Department agencies that Ross would control, such as the Patent and Trademark Office. Blumenthal said there are eight Trump organization trademarks pending before PTO.
Blumenthal said Ross’s ethics agreement, released Jan. 17, amounts to Ross divesting himself of 90 percent of his holdings.
But that was a relatively brief discussion. Significant time at the hearing was spent on trade policy.
'Activist' on dumping complaints
As one example of stronger government action, Ross said he would be much more aggressive than previous governments in having the Commerce Department “self-initiate” anti-dumping or countervailing duty complaints.
Typically such cases are brought by industries, but Ross said that can be more difficult financially for industries with many small companies.
“I am an activist,” Ross said. “I think that tool of self-initiation is a very useful one.”
He suggested the North American Free Trade Agreement would be an early focus for the Trump administration.
“As to Canada and Mexico, the president-elect has made no secret in his public remarks… that NAFTA is logically the first thing for us to deal with,” Ross said. “I think that should be, and hopefully will be if I’m confirmed, a very, very early topic in this administration.”
As well, he suggested that trade with China would also get attention.
“China is the most protectionist country of large countries,” Ross said. “They talk much more about free trade than they actually practice. We would like to levelize that playing field.”
Ross was heavily involved in drafting Trump campaign positions, publishing a joint policy paper on trade in September with economist Peter Navarro, who Trump has tapped to lead a new National Trade Council.
“I am not anti-trade, I am pro trade,” Ross said. “But I am pro sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base.”
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the top-ranking Democrat on the Republican-controlled committee, said it was an expectation in Washington that Ross would be a much more powerful Commerce Secretary.
Nelson noted that typically the Commerce post “has not been one of the most sought after or appreciated positions in Washington.
“But I have a feeling that’s about to change big-time,” Nelson said. “As the President-elect has indicated, he is going to look to you and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson to lead the administration’s trade agenda. That’s a departure from the recent past.”