CQ NEWS – Business Groups Scramble to Fight Trump on Tariffs

March 5, 2018 – 3:54 p.m. By Kate Ackley, CQ

Republican-leaning business lobbies that oppose the Trump administration’s idea to set new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports are grasping for a strategy to change the president’s mind.

The high-stakes tariff issue will test the lobbying clout of some of K Street’s biggest players, such as the Business Roundtable, on whether they can influence the often unpredictable policy proposals and power structure of the Trump administration. It also pits President Donald Trump against many of his party’s top leaders in Congress, who are largely aligned with K Street interests on this matter.

“Business groups are going to have to get more creative than the playbook from the 1990s to impact this policy,” said GOP lobbyist and former Hill staffer Sam Geduldig of the CGCN Group. “This steel tariff issue defines Trump’s agenda and his core convictions. Yes, it splits the traditional Republican coalition, and I don’t think he cares.”

The Business Roundtable, led by former George W. Bush administration aide Joshua Bolten, came out strongly against the tariff proposal late last week. And Bolten took to “Fox News Sunday” to explain the group’s concerns, including the fear that it would lead to U.S. job losses, among other problems. Criticism has been fierce since Trump said he would levy a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent penalty on aluminum imports.

The proposal would “hurt the U.S. economy and American companies, workers and consumers by raising prices and resulting in foreign retaliation against U.S. exporters,” Bolten said in a news release. “Using ‘national security’ tools to implement tariffs could embolden other countries to impose ‘national security’ tariffs on U.S. exporters or otherwise restrict U.S. goods and services sold to their markets.”

The Business Roundtable, a lobbying group representing the CEOs of some of the nation’s biggest corporations, and other business organizations have boosted the Trump administration’s work on the tax overhaul (PL 115-97) and on a wide-ranging agenda to roll back Obama-era regulations.

David McIntosh, a Republican and former Indiana congressman who runs the anti-tax group Club for Growth, said tariffs would “harm the pro-growth effects of the tax cut” and provide a potent political issue that “would help hand the election to Democrats.”

But trade poses a tricky policy predicament for business interests.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports free trade generally, has not issued a public statement on the tariff issue, pending the administration’s actual implementation, the group’s spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said in an email.

Lobbying on trade and tariff matters increased in 2017 when compared with 2016, according to a CQ analysis of lobbying disclosure reports. But that does not capture the lobbying that’s going on now, most of which won’t be disclosed until April.

Still, not all K Street clients oppose what the president is pitching.

The Vogel Group, a lobbying and consulting firm, recently registered to represent JSW Steel USA, a steel plate and pipe manufacturer in Daytown, Texas, including on such issues as “tariffs related to imports.”

“We applaud the president’s decision to really focus keenly on our domestic ability to produce steel,” the firm’s chief operating officer Samir N. Kapadia told CQ.

In an odd-bedfellows alliance, unions that have blasted the Trump administration on a number of policies have come out in favor of the tariffs.

“For years, we have called attention to the predatory practices of some steel exporting countries. Such practices hurt working people and cheat companies that produce in the U.S.,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a news release. “This is a great first step toward addressing trade cheating, and we will continue to work with the administration on rewriting trade rules to benefit working people.”