South Carolina lawmakers increase pressure on Trump administration ahead of trade talks

Rep. Mark Sanford on Trump’s NAFTA threats

US Rep. Mark Sanford says ending NAFTA, as Trump has threatened, would be catastrophic. Sanford and other members of SC's legislative delegation spoke to the SC Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, August 23.
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US Rep. Mark Sanford says ending NAFTA, as Trump has threatened, would be catastrophic. Sanford and other members of SC's legislative delegation spoke to the SC Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, August 23.

Sen. Tim Scott will block the confirmation of nominees for positions in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office until he gets a satisfactory response on some issues that matter to his state.

Rep. Mark Sanford is speaking directly with the assistant U.S. trade representative about an upcoming administration decision that could devastate South Carolina’s booming local solar power industry.

Rep. Tom Rice plans to head to Montreal this coming week to attend a round of North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham has attended lunches at the White House urging the president not to withdraw from a trade agreement that’s been a boon to state’s manufacturing economy.

The big push from all four South Carolina Republicans come as President Donald Trump is set to start negotiating soon on whether to remain in NAFTA and make a series of trade decisions in the next few days and weeks.

Scott’s spokesman, Sean Smith, told McClatchy the senator was using his leverage to get answers from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about a variety of matters important to South Carolina.

A USTR spokesperson said a miscommunication was responsible for Lightizer and Scott being unable to connect in a timely fashion.

Smith confirmed that the two men have spoken, but Scott would continue to block at least two deputy trade representatives from being confirmed for the time being: Dennis Shea to be stationed in the Geneva office and C.J. Mahoney to cover investment, services, labor, environment, Africa, China and the Western Hemisphere.

“As trade issues begin to ramp up, it is important that the USTR is responsive to inquiries from members of Congress,” said Smith. “That goes double for trade heavy states like South Carolina.”

Trump also must soon decide two cases that involve imposing tariffs. One relates to Samsung washing machines, a ruling which could jeopardize the home appliance manufacturing giant’s plans to expand operations in Newberry, S.C.

The other would raise the cost of solar panels, which could make it difficult for the state’s solar installation companies to get the equipment they need to serve customers around the state.

Smith also suggested Scott, a member of the Senate Finance Committee with jurisdiction over trade issues, was worried about the administration’s reported desire to change the “rule of origin” requirement for vehicles — that is, increase the percentage of parts a vehicle made in North America must get from North American producers.

Sanford praised Scott’s hardline approach.

“South Carolina has become a major player, the number one export state in the nation with more than 140,000 direct jobs tied to the auto industry alone in South Carolina,” Sanford said. “The administration is talking about changing the rules of origin and a couple of other things that would have disastrous consequences for South Carolina.”

Sanford wrote a letter to Lighthizer about not amending the “rule of origin” threshold late last year. This past week, he spoke to assistant U.S. Trade Representative Christopher Jackson about the solar panel issue, and forwarded him an email he had written to Lightizer on the same topic. Sanford described Lightizer as being “mostly responsible.”

South Carolina has over the past several years become home to dozens of automotive manufacturing plants, thanks in large part to NAFTA, the 1994 agreement that made it easier to buy and sell goods across the U.S., Mexican and Canadian borders.

Trump has said NAFTA is no longer a good deal for the United States, and plenty of South Carolinians agree with him: While the automobile market has thrived due to NAFTA, the state’s longstanding textile industry all but disappeared.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., told McClatchy recently it’s a dynamic he’s had to explain to his constituents in the Upstate, where the textile industry was strongest prior to NAFTA’s arrival.

“You get a blend in South Carolina, and the third (congressional) district, anyway, of people who understand NAFTA’s been good for the state and industries here, and a lot of folks who still blame NAFTA for the loss of the textile industry,” he said.

Duncan added it was important to protect the state’s automobile industry in any NAFTA negotiation.

Sanford, in an op-ed he plans to publish somewhere in the South Carolina media market, also made the argument that the state should not wish for a situation where NAFTA gets re-negotiated, or simply goes away, given it would deeply disrupt the local economy.

“We went through the hard part,” Sanford said of NAFTA’s onset. “It’ll hurt the people of our state to change the rules again, and businesses will hardly make billion dollar bets if our trade agreements are subject to change with each new administration.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain