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US commerce chief touts new trade deal in Erie stop

Erie Times-News logo Erie Times-News 7/1/2020 Ed Palattella
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks Wednesday at the Manufacturer & Business Association during a roundtable discussion with association members. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © Provided by Erie Times-News U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks Wednesday at the Manufacturer & Business Association during a roundtable discussion with association members. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

President Donald Trump's signature international trade deal went into effect on Wednesday at the same time coronavirus cases are surging, keeping America's borders partially closed and creating potential problems for businesses that now face a threat of a second shutdown.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in a visit to Erie on Wednesday, said he is confident the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will help the United States as it recovers from the pandemic, and he said the deal, which replaces the 26-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, will return an estimated 100,000 jobs to the country.

The USMCA, Ross said, "couldn't come at a better time."

Ross said Erie, with an estimated 18,000 manufacturing jobs, stands to benefit under USMCA, which he said strengthens the relationship between the United States and two of its largest trading partners.

Among the key components of the deal are protections for intellectual property and copyright and protections for issues dealing with collective bargaining and the environment. The pact also requires that 75% of the parts of a vehicle to be sourced from the United States, Canada or Mexico or the vehicle will be subject to a tariff. The percentage under NAFTA was 62.5%.

And, as Ross highlighted on Wednesday, USMCA requires that 40% to 45% of cars eventually be made in countries that pay autoworkers at least $16 an hour. The $16 threshold generally applies to the United States and Canada and not to Mexico — a situation the Trump administration is counting on to help bring jobs back to the United States.

USMCA gained bipartisan support in Congress when it passed the House in December and the Senate in January, and the Trump administration is touting it as the president runs for reelection. "Despite the Democrats' best attempts to obstruct and resist, President Trump's America First agenda continues to deliver for Pennsylvanians everywhere," Melissa Reed, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee and Trump's campaign, said in a statement about USMCA on Wednesday.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party criticized Trump's efforts on trade in a statement the party issued in response to Ross' visit to Erie, where he spoke for an hour to about 20 business representatives and community leaders at the Manufacturer & Business Association, 2171 W. 38th St., and then toured Howard Industries, which makes signs and sign systems, in Fairview Township.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party said Erie County has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs since Trump took office and said "Trump failed to keep his promise to get tough on China," according to a statement from a party spokesperson, Andres Anzola. "He lost a trade war that he started and pushed our manufacturers to the brink. There's still no meaningful trade deal with the Chinese government that erases the damage Trump's actions have caused. No last-minute attempt to save face will prevent Pennsylvania voters from holding him accountable."

Ross, in his comments, said the new trade deal "fortifies the world's largest trading bloc" and shows Trump's "unwavering commitment to rebalance U.S. trade in favor of U.S. producers."

Ross also defended Trump's handling of the pandemic. He said the president acted swiftly by restricting flights from China on Jan. 31, and Ross said the administration developed protocols and guidelines based on the best information available at the time.

"It's always easy to look in retrospect and say this should've been done, that should've been done," Ross said in a session with reporters after his talk. "But the president did act very fast. He acted extremely fast in blocking travel from China. That probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives. That single decision was most likely the most important one he could make."

a man wearing a suit and tie: U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross arrives at the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie on Wednesday. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS] © Provided by Erie Times-News U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross arrives at the Manufacturer & Business Association in Erie on Wednesday. [JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS]

Ross said the Trump administration and its White House Coronavirus Task Force will continue to let state and local officials decide when businesses and other areas can reopen. During a discussion with business representatives on Wednesday, some criticized what they described as Pennsylvania's inconsistent rules for closing and reopening businesses.

Others have criticized Trump — who, unlike Ross on Wednesday, has not worn a mask — for urging states to reopen too quickly and for not providing more consistent direction on the federal level on how to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"As to the decision to reopen," Ross told reporters, "we believe that the people best qualified to make the decision are the people on the ground locally. Because every state is in a somewhat different circumstance, and often within the state, every county, every city, even every census block is in a little different situation.

"So we felt the appropriate thing was to come with broad guidelines that were agreed to by the Coronavirus Task Force and let the states implement it. And many of the states chose to delegate part of that responsibility to the local communities.

"Now that does create a patchwork quilt because businesses don't live by lines drawn on a map," Ross said. "Businesses live by where there customers are. But we don't know that there was a better alternative than giving the power to the states."

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

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