This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, January 18, the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee held a confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross.
Back up…what’s a confirmation hearing?
One of the Senate’s Constitutional duties is to provide advice and consent for the president’s appointment of federal officers. As representatives of the people, the Senate’s key role in confirming or rejecting the president-elect’s candidates serves as an important check on executive power. In each hearing, the members of a relevant Senate committee have the opportunity to question the nominee, hear the nominee’s case for serving the president, and listen to testimonies about the candidate.
Okay, got that. So what’s the Secretary of Commerce do?
The Secretary of Commerce is concerned with promoting American industry and business, both at home and abroad. He or she oversees the Department of Commerce and serves as a member of the president’s cabinet.
Who is Wilbur Ross?
Wilbur Louis Ross, Jr. was born in 1937 in Weehawken, New Jersey. He attended Yale University, and later received an MBA from Harvard Business School. He spent 24 years at Rothschild, Inc., where he led their bankruptcy-restructuring advisory practice. He then opened WL Ross & Co. after buying out an investment fund he had been managing. After selling his private equity firm, he bought and sold ailing steel, coal, and textile companies. He served under President Clinton on the board of the U.S.-Russia Investment Fund, and under New York City’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the his privatization advisor. His net worth is over $2.5 billion.
How does the hearing work?
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is in charge of the Secretary of Commerce confirmation hearings. The committee is chaired by Sen. John Thune [R, SD], and its Ranking Member is Sen. Bill Nelson [D, FL]. The hearing lasted for roughly four hours, with one ten-minute recess. Here’s how it all goes down.
So what did they talk about?
Similar to the confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson, Ross’s business experience came under scrutiny during the hearing. Some, like Sens. Maria Cantwell [D, WA] and Richard Blumenthal [D, CT], expressed concern of potential conflicts of interest despite his substantial divestment from his business interests. In the hearing, Ross committed to recusing himself if such conflicts should arise, such as in the shipping industry where he has retained some holdings. Additionally, some, like Sen. Nelson questioned whether buying and selling ailing businesses for the sake of profit is the right mentality for a Commerce Secretary. Other senators, however, touted his experiences in a vast number of industries as beneficial to the position of Secretary of Commerce and improving the state of American business.
Sen. Blumenthal called on President-elect Trump to follow his lead, while underscoring the potential for Trump’s existing financial interests (of which Ross stated he had no specific knowledge) to create conflicts of interest with the Department of Commerce. Sen. Tom Udall [D, NM] was also wary of President-elect Trump’s business interests; Udall warned that as Ross planned to re-negotiate trade deals, Trump’s business interests could potentially be used as leverage.
Throughout the hearing, senators commented on the notion that the Trump Administration and Ross plan on making the role of Secretary of Commerce much more robust than in years past, especially when it comes to trade. Sen. Thune questioned whether Ross would infringe upon the jurisdiction of the U.S. Trade Representative, but Ross assured him that they would work collaboratively.
Ross’s key message on “sensible trade” was a call for leveling the playing field. In an exchange with Sen. Dean Heller [R, NV], Ross stated that bilateral agreements are the way forward for trade negotiations; in his opinion, they are easier to negotiate and do not require as many compromises for U.S. businesses.
In multiple exchanges, including with Sen. Amy Klobuchar [D, MN] and Sen. Gary Peters [D, MI], Ross condemned illegal steel dumping by countries with an overcapacity issue, such as China. Sen. Peters called on Ross to be an aggressive enforcer of rules by self-initiating anti-dumping investigations. Ross replied that he planned on addressing this issue.
Plan to increase economic growth and job creation
To further address economic growth, Ross put forth a four-point plan for the U.S. — expand exports, become energy self-sufficient, reform regulations, and improve infrastructure. This plan, featured in an op-ed he coauthored, includes completing a cost-benefit analysis for every regulation in place or that is proposed.
The infrastructure aspect of his strategy was heavily discussed. Ross emphasized the importance of collaboration with the private sector in accomplishing infrastructure goals, though he acknowledged that some federal spending would play a role, after being questioned by Sen. Cory Booker [D, NJ]. He noted that the current low interest rates are conducive to investment, and that without repairs and modernization, infrastructure in America cannot support the kind of economic growth he and Trump hope to stimulate. Along with traditional infrastructure projects, Ross and others spoke about the importance of incorporating newer technology into infrastructure projects, such as optical fiber and rural broadband.
Spectrum, NOAA, minority businesses
Ross was also questioned by Sen. Booker and Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto [D, NV] about the Minority Business Development Association (which he said he supported). Additionally, Ross spoke about the benefits that data collection agencies within the Department of Commerce, such as NOAA and the Census provide and that such data can encourage new investment.
Another major topic of discussion was spectrum. Sen. Ted Cruz [R, TX] and Ross discussed the potential for unused or underused spectrum to be harnessed, creating jobs in innovative fields. This discussion comes as the first-ever auction of spectrum is underway.