As U.S. manufacturers retool to rapidly boost production of medical equipment to fight COVID-19, a debate is brewing in Washington over whether to lift tariffs on Chinese imports, including some plastic products, to help in that fight.
Some want President Donald Trump's administration to temporarily halt tariffs on a wide range of medical products, including Chinese-made plastic face shields and medical gowns, plastics used in 3D printing, injection molds for medical products and resins used in health care applications.
They say it would lower costs and help to ease persistent shortages of medical products.
But others are pushing back, saying that in some cases tariffs should be kept because there's enough U.S. and regional capacity to meet surging health care needs. And they say keeping the tariffs will help the president's goal of building up U.S. industry and trying to reshore manufacturing.
The push to lift tariffs is coming from groups like the American Chemistry Council, which told U.S. trade officials that they should temporarily suspend tariffs on a range of plastics and chemicals, including polycarbonate used in medical devices and syringes, PVC in tubing and IV bags and polypropylene in masks, gowns and goggles.
ACC President and CEO Chris Jahn noted shortages of key medical equipment needed by health care workers in an April 29 letter asking U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to suspend China tariffs that USTR and President Trump have aggressively supported.
"Eliminating additional tariffs … on these chemical and plastic inputs is one of the quickest, most straight-forward approaches to cutting the costs to making high-demand products in the United States," Jahn said. "Despite the best efforts of businesses around the country, health care workers, consumers and workers in essential industries are in dire need of products and equipment that can help save lives."
Congress is also weighing in.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, on May 4 called on the Trump administration to suspend all tariffs, including China tariffs, for 90 days on more than 100 categories of medical imports needed to fight the pandemic.
He called it an emergency measure to overcome persistent shortages but also said it needed to be paired with long-term efforts to boost domestic production of medical goods, using the Defense Production Act and other tools.
Some argued against tariff suspensions.
Materials supplier Milliken & Co. urged Washington to keep tariffs on some specific Chinese materials used to make personal protective equipment, painting it as part of a broader effort to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.
It noted it's an "essential company" under U.S. rules and said it and other companies are ramping up production in the region to support medical production.
"These unnecessary tariff concessions would benefit an importer at the direct expense of American manufacturers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response," Executive Vice President W. Chad McAllister wrote to Lighthizer April 30.
"Members of this administration — including [senior Trump trade aide] Peter Navarro recently — pledged that the United States would move away from its reliance on the other nations for medical supplies and towards building up its own domestic supply chain," he said.
Milliken said supply chains in North America and Central America can meet the demand.
Some industry groups that include plastics firms, like the Coalition for a Prosperous America, have had similar messages in recent weeks, urging Washington to take stronger steps to boost U.S. manufacturing of medical products. The Washington Post reported April 30 that Navarro has been urging Trump to adopt an executive order requiring the federal government to buy U.S.-made medical supplies.