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What We Learned (And Didn’t) About Wilbur Ross At His Confirmation Hearing

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged repeatedly to adopt a new, tougher trade policy that would prioritize creating jobs for American workers. On Wednesday, Trump’s nominee for commerce secretary began to paint a picture of what that new policy might look like.

In his nearly four hours in front of a Senate committee on Wednesday, Wilbur Ross Jr. spoke in a calm, measured tone that was far removed from Trump’s campaign-trail histrionics. But in substance, he and Trump were largely in agreement: Ross left little doubt that the new administration plans to reshape the U.S. approach to trade. He accused China and other countries of unfair trade practices, defended the use of tariffs and criticized provisions of existing trade agreements, including NAFTA. And while Ross didn’t fully embrace some of Trump’s most extreme promises — such as his call for a 35 percent tariff on imports from companies that ship jobs overseas — he argued that Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric is simply good negotiating strategy.

“The president has done a wonderful job preconditioning other countries with whom we will be negotiating that change is coming,” Ross said before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The commerce secretary oversees a sprawling bureaucracy that includes the Census Bureau, the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the agencies that produce much of the government’s economic data. Still, it is typically a relatively low-profile post, with the treasury secretary and various White House advisers playing a larger role in economic policymaking.

There are signs, however, that Ross will be unusually influential. The billionaire investor was a key architect of Trump’s policy on trade and other economic issues during the campaign, and he has made several television appearances on Trump’s behalf since the election. During Wednesday’s hearing, several senators made reference to Ross’s “expanded role,” as Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt put it.

Ross, like other wealthy nominees for Trump’s Cabinet, has drawn scrutiny for his potential conflicts of interest. But apart from a few questions from Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell over Ross’s investments in the shipping industry (which he plans to keep while in office), senators spent little time on those issues Wednesday. Indeed, Ross was greeted relatively warmly by Democrats as well as Republicans, perhaps in part because he has drawn support from some labor leaders.

Wednesday’s hearing, then, lacked the contentiousness of Tuesday’s grilling of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos or the drama of last week’s hearing for secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson. But it was nonetheless significant for what it revealed about Trump’s economic policy. Here’s a quick roundup of what we learned — and what we didn’t — about how Ross would approach the job:

Tariffs and trade: Trump’s protectionist rhetoric on the campaign trail alarmed many economists, who argue that erecting trade barriers would ultimately cost the U.S. jobs. Ross struck a more moderate tone Wednesday, saying in his opening statement that he is “pro-trade.” But he repeatedly stressed the need for “reciprocity” – if the U.S. is going to open up its market to foreign goods, he said, our trading partners should be expected to do the same. And if they don’t, the U.S. should be free to retaliate.

“We would like to have our trading partners also practice free trade,” Ross said. U.S. companies can compete in “a fair fight,” he said, but “in a lot of cases, it is not a fair fight.”

Ross said the best way for the U.S. to narrow its trade deficit is to increase exports, not to limit imports. But he defended tariffs as a way of giving the U.S. leverage in negotiations to open up foreign markets.

“I think tariffs play a role both as a negotiating tool and where necessary to punish those who don’t play by the rules,” Ross said.

His history of outsourcing: Earlier this week, Reuters reported that Ross’s companies had sent about 2,700 jobs overseas since 2004. Ross defended his actions Wednesday, saying that by sending some jobs overseas, he had been able to save thousands of others. “We have been a very large net creator of jobs,” Ross said.

Ross more than once mentioned his history of working with United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard, who has spoken favorably of Ross’s nomination. The relationship dates back about 15 years, to when Ross bought several struggling U.S. steelmakers and restored them to financial health. Ross called the experience “probably the sequence of events I’m most proud of in my career.”

Data: If confirmed, Ross would oversee several of the government’s most important statistical agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (which produces the government’s official figures for gross domestic product and other economic statistics). Ross positioned himself as an advocate for data, noting during his opening statement that he had been a frequent user of government data during his business career, and had even worked as a census taker while in business school. He said he had learned in business that, “Anything you can’t measure you can’t manage.”

In recent years, some Republicans in Congress have tried to restrict government data collection and to cut funding to the Census Bureau and other statistical agencies. Ross signaled he will fight those efforts. “It’s been hard getting the commitment for the appropriations that census really needs for its mission,” he said.

Economic growth: Noting that U.S. economic growth has been consistently disappointing in recent years, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson asked Ross what growth rate he thought the U.S. could achieve. Ross said he thought the U.S. “can certainly get north of 3 percent growth” if it cuts regulation, increases exports and invests in infrastructure, among other policies proposed by Trump.

A sustained growth rate of 3 percent per year would mark a substantial acceleration from recent years (GDP growth has averaged a bit over 2 percent per year since the recession ended in 2009), and it is faster than the Federal Reserve and many other economists consider realistic at a time when the baby boomers are retiring and population growth has slowed. But 3 percent is downright realistic compared to Trump’s claims during the campaign that he could deliver consistent growth of 4, 5 or even 6 percent.

His experience: Ross, like several of Trump’s nominees, has never served in government. But he made the case, at least implicitly, that his private-sector experience left him well-prepared for his new role. “I’m pretty familiar with the airline industry,” he said in response to one question. “I probably have greater familiarity with mining than most people up for this position,” he said in response to another. He made similar claims about his knowledge of shipping, tourism, auto manufacturing and other sectors.

Ross avoided flubs like those made by DeVos and Tillerson, and he frequently cited statistics and specific examples in his answers. On areas where he was less informed, Ross said so – and senators mostly gave him a pass.

“You have comported yourself quite well,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said at the end of the hearings, praising Ross for being “non-evasive in your answers.” The hearing, Nelson added, was “a piece of cake compared to some of the other nominees.”

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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