WASHINGTON — Corporate turnaround expert Wilbur L. Ross on Thursday launched a new coalition with the goal of redirecting U.S. trade policy, which he said has tilted too far in the direction of promoting imports at the expense of domestic manufacturing and America’s standard of living.
A month ago, Ross hatched the idea for a coalition focused on the $500 billion U.S. trade deficit and attacked federal policies he argues give U.S. sales of foreign-made goods an edge over American exports. He has worked the phones ever since to drum up members for his Free Trade for America Coalition from sectors of U.S. industry, including textiles, steel, honey, cattle, paper and cotton.
“The problem of trade is a big one and it’s getting worse and worse,” Ross said in response to reporters peppering him with questions about why there’s a need for a new entity to enter the fray against U.S. trade policies and to press its case with Capitol Hill lawmakers and the Bush administration.
But not all the lobbying groups and coalitions take their message outside of Washington. Much as unions do, Ross envisions FREETAC members being deployed around the country to educate Americans about the trade deficit, which he blames for the decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs that have fallen by 2.6 million during the past three years.
Ross, while appearing hesitant to talk about the political pressure he hopes FREETAC will generate, said after the news conference that Capitol Hill lawmakers and the Bush administration are in his sights.
“Over time, if we do our work right, it will be politically impossible to have silly positions on trade,” said Ross, who is FREETAC’s chairman.
Ross said he is underwriting FREETAC for the time being until members contribute, but he declined to discuss a budget.
On FREETAC’s list of elements fueling the trade deficit are what members consider to be an overvalued dollar increasing the price of U.S. exports, foreign currency devaluations boosting inexpensive imports into the U.S., illegal imports due to circumvention of American trade laws and trade agreements seen by the coalition as favorable to other countries.
The result, Ross argues, is “a concerted effort to transfer America’s wealth to other nations.”
“Do you think foreign governments are protecting interests other than their own?” asked Ross. “I don’t think so.”
The textile industry organizations signing on to FREETAC are the National Textile Association, the American Textile Manufacturing Institute and the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition. Textile company members so far are bankrupt Burlington Industries, which is in Ross’ stable of investments; yarn giant Parkdale Mills, Dillon Yarn Corp. and upholstery fabric maker Sunbury Textile Mills.
FREETAC’s total membership reflects 3,000 corporate members and their 2 million workers.
The coalition is being launched at a time when the soft economy and decline in manufacturing jobs has become a political liability for the Bush administration and Capitol Hill lawmakers heading into the 2004 elections.
FREETAC’s launch is rankling retailers, among the sectors supporting the U.S. policy of negotiating free trade agreements and otherwise lowering trade barriers in the U.S. and abroad.
Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said he’s “definitely concerned” about the launch of another coalition.
“Every time someone talks about the trade deficit in this context it’s a thinly veiled sort of message that somehow we have to keep imports out of the United States,” Autor said. “That is a protectionist message.”
However, Ross said he’s not looking for government help as the solution, but to make U.S. policies play a role in keeping manufacturers globally competitive.
“That’s where the real battle is,” Ross added.
Ross is no stranger to Washington. He already employs two lobbyists for steel issues as his investments include the old Bethlehem and LTV steel corporations, which he’s been revamping.
After the FREETAC news conference, Ross was set to testify before the congressional Steel Caucus. He wants lawmakers to pressure the White House to keep import tariffs on foreign steel, a controversial step President Bush took to help keep domestic producers and which is being challenged at the World Trade Organization.
Like steel, the weakened U.S. textile industry is seeking administration protection from imports in the form of limits on Chinese knit fabric, bras and robes.