- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

President Bush’s decision to end steel tariffs will hurt him politically in some key steel-producing states but will help him in steel-using states.

In addition, he will avoid the politically devastating prospect of an international trade war.

“I think it augurs well both politically and economically,” said Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican, whose district has thousands of employees in manufacturing industries that rely on steel.

Democrats, though, predicted disastrous consequences and retribution from workers in steel-producing states.

“Today, the Bush administration shattered any credibility it ever had with the steel industry in West Virginia and across this country,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.

Mr. Bush imposed tariffs on imported steel in March 2002, citing a law that allows for protecting industries if the president believes foreign nations are engaging in unfair trade practices that threaten a domestic industry’s health. The tariffs were to last for three years.

But after an interim report showed mixed benefits and costs from the levies, and Asian and European nations threatened retaliatory tariffs, Mr. Bush yesterday announced the tariffs will end.

Herbert Asher, a professor at Ohio State University, said Mr. Bush was making the best of the situation.

“Probably you’re really cutting your loses at this stage, and if you have to take a hit, so be it. And it may be less of a hit if the economy is in a recovery,” he said.

He said the issue’s potency next year will depend on how the economy is doing as a whole, and whether the Democratic nominee is someone who can challenge Mr. Bush credibly on the issue.

Steelworker unions said they will make the decision an issue next year.

“In the 2000 election, Bush was able to carry West Virginia, and apparently the presidency, because while we did not endorse George Bush we refused to endorse Al Gore,” said David Gossett, spokesman for the 3,000-member Independent Steelworkers Union in Weirton, W.Va.

“This union will now work very actively to see George W. Bush the candidate join us on the unemployment line next year,” he said.

As a gauge of how important the issue is to some communities, Mr. Gossett said the local CBS television affiliate carried live the White House briefing that announced the decision yesterday afternoon.

The issue does resonate in key states.

A Public Opinion Strategies poll taken in October among voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia found that 14 percent of households in those states were connected to the steel industry, but 69 percent of all voters wanted the tariffs to continue.

In the 2000 election, Mr. Bush won Ohio by 4 percentage points and West Virginia by 6 percentage points. He lost both Michigan and Pennsylvania by 5 percentage points.

But Rep. Donald Manzullo, an Illinois Republican who praised Mr. Bush’s move yesterday, said the political result will be a wash because Mr. Bush’s initial decision to impose tariffs didn’t seem to win him new supporters.

“If that was the intent in the first place, it never worked,” he said. “The steelworkers endorsed [Democratic presidential candidate Richard A.] Gephardt, and U.S. manufacturers want the ability to get steel as much as they can at as reasonable a price as possible.”

And steelworkers are outnumbered by employees in steel-using industries.

The administration said nationwide there are 150,000 steelworkers, while Mr. Knollenberg said he has seen estimates of employees in steel-consuming industries as high as 12 million.

“There’s no question Michigan benefits more than West Virginia,” he said. “But even so, both states have a much greater percentage of steel consumers than steel producers.”

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