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Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross: Trade partners have to play by our rules

Wilbur Ross promised Wednesday that as Commerce secretary he would encourage trade on conditions that were favorable to U.S. interests.

Those who violate trade rules, he said during his confirmation hearing, should be "severely punished." More specifically, he said dumping of steel and aluminum will be a key focus, with tariffs slapped on violators. He also expressed opinion on various trade deals in which the U.S. has entered, specifically saying that changing the North American Free Trade Agreement is "the first thing for us to deal with."

"I think that we cannot afford trade that is inherently bad for American workers and American businesses," he said, adding that the U.S. "can compete very effectively if it's a fair fight."

"I think tariffs play a role both as a negotiating tool and if necessary to push offenders who don't play by the rules," he added.

Addressing specific situations, Ross said he supported the basic principle of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which President-elect Donald Trump has denounced in strong terms — but changed his mind as he sifted through the agreement.

"As I delved into the thousands of pages of documents, I came across some things that I felt were not consistent with what had been advertised," he said. One specific area he cited was a provision that 60 percent of the contents of a car can come from outside the TPP realm, but can still receive protection under the agreement.

The hearing was before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and featured mostly cordial exchanges. Several members did question whether Ross would divest himself of his myriad business affairs. He already has divested from multiple businesses and resigned from boards. he said he will have no involvement in the running of his shipping business.

Touting his experience with trade across multiple industries, the billionaire investor in distressed companies said the U.S. "should provide that access to nations who agree to play by our standards of free trade."

"So I am not anti-trade. I am pro-trade," he said. "But I am pro-sensible trade, not trade that is detrimental to the American worker and to the domestic manufacturing base."

To help with other domestic issues, Ross said he expects Trump to roll back business regulations. He also on several occasions cited the virtue of low interest rates to help the U.S. solve its problems.

Ross runs W.L. Ross & Co., and his resume includes rescuing companies in the steel, coal and telecom businesses, among others — though his restructuring efforts have included layoffs. Some of the bigger names have been International Steel Group, Lear and International Textile.

Ross detailed instances where his companies have had to offshore some jobs due to manufacturing requirements. However, he said those have been exceptions. He included "saving the American steel industry" as one of his proudest achievements.

"I believe if you add or subtract we have been a very large net creator of jobs during this whole period in the United States," Ross said.

Promoting exports, which are about 13 percent of the U.S. economy, is his "No. 1 objective."

His trade views will be critical as he works for a president who has been skeptical of U.S. trade agreements with other countries.Trump has said he would slap tariffs on companies that he feels aren't practicing fair trade, and Wall Street forecasts repeatedly have listed the possibility of a global trade war as the biggest risk under the new administration.

"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," Ross said. "I am very well aware of the issues many companies face, and I'm sensitive to both the issues abroad and the issues here at home."

He also said he has met with tech executives and was "amazed" at how similar their problems are in dealing with foreign competition.

In addition to trade duties, Ross said he will focus on the department's other objectives, particularly providing accurate weather reports and supplying data