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Bipartisan trade legislation aims to protect small businesses

A pair of Senators on Feb. 14 introduced bipartisan legislation that they say will help small and medium-sized businesses defend themselves against the dumping of imported products by foreign competitors, a key economic goal of the Trump administration.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said their Self-Initiation Trade Enforcement Act would create a permanent task force within the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, or ITA, to investigate dumping and subsidies on imports, putting smaller businesses on par with foreign competitors.

Dumping — when foreign companies sell their imported products below market value in the U.S. — has particularly made it difficult for small American businesses to compete because of price disadvantages, and companies often also fear retaliation from foreign competitors if they complain, Peters said in a joint news release Feb. 14.

The task force would research trade data and report trade violations for formal investigation by the ITA, with an emphasis on those impacting small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S., the senators said.

"The majority of their investigations begin only after companies or industry representatives lodge formal complaints," the senators said in the release. "Small and medium-sized businesses, including agricultural producers, manufacturers, parts suppliers, and paper goods producers, often lack the resources needed to identify unfair practices and bring them to the attention of the Commerce Department."

Peters said in the joint release that small and medium-sized businesses in his state face "unfair competition" from foreign companies that are bringing artificially cheaper goods into the U.S. market.

“Smaller companies with limited resources may not have the ability to identify trade violations, or worse, they fear retaliation from governments in foreign markets where they sell their products," Peters said. "This bipartisan bill will ensure American manufacturers and agricultural producers can compete on a level playing field."

Currently, the Commerce Department has the authority to self-initiate dumping and subsidies investigations, but the Senators said the department "rarely" uses the power.

Michael Wessel, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the bill would specifically help against what he called China's "unfair" trade practices.

“For too long, the burden has been on the private sector to have our trade laws enforced," Wessel said. "Our companies are essentially being forced to compete with countries and their predatory policies."

The bill comes as the Trump administration ramps up efforts to protect American companies that it believes have been operating at a disadvantage.

Trump on Feb. 13 said he believes that imports of steel and aluminum have "decimated" domestic industries, which followed his decision to impose an up to 50% tariff on imports of large residential washing machines that he said were undercutting U.S. producers.