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Portman Talks Trade Enforcement with Workers at Pennex Aluminum

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LEETONIA, Ohio – U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, says the Trump Administration must be careful when it comes to renegotiating international trade agreements so that these deals also protect and grow exports from companies here in the United States.

“One of my concerns on the Trump Administration is that if you don’t promote trade agreements, you’re not going to see the exports,” Portman said Friday afternoon after hosting a town hall meeting with employees at Pennex Aluminum Co. “My view on trade is really pretty simple: We need to export more and we need to keep the imports fair.”

Portman, U.S. trade representative during the administration of President George W. Bush, said he supported President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, because it presented some problems with the auto industry in Ohio.

“Let’s not stop opening up these markets,” Portman said, noting he’s promoting a bilateral trade agreement with Japan that he thinks could boost American exports to that country. “We need more American cars over there, we need more agriculture over there. We really need to open up these markets overseas.”

Strong exports translate to more jobs in the United States, especially in Ohio, Portman said. “Twenty-five percent of all factory jobs are export jobs, and they’re good jobs,” he said. In Ohio, 60% of exports from the state go to those countries with which the United States has trade agreements, which represents about 10% of the world.

Trade dominated Portman’s talk Friday after he took a quick tour of Pennex’s plant at the Leetonia World Trade Park. The company produces aluminum extrusions for manufacturers in the automotive, transportation, construction and recreation markets.

Portman said countries such as China have a history of “dumping” aluminum product on the U.S. market, that is, the country sells the product in this country at a lower price than domestic manufacturers because the foreign aluminum is either subsidized or sold below cost. Dumping violates U.S. trade law.

Portman noted Chinese imports accounted for 26% of the U.S. aluminum market in 2009.

In 2010, the International Trade Commission found that China had illegally dumped cheap aluminum on the U.S. market, causing injury to domestic manufacturers. This led to sanctions against Chinese imports that helped the bottom line of companies such as Pennex.

However, those regulations are about to sunset and the case needs to be re-filed, Portman said. Second, he and other lawmakers want to hold Chinese producers accountable for sending their products to other countries as a pass-through before they’re shipped to the U.S. in order to evade tariffs.

“The result of these trade cases is that there are more jobs here,” Portman said.

Pennex, for example, has hired 70 employees since it expanded its plant last year. Today, a total of 150 are employed there.

“This particular plant is able to succeed because there is a more level playing field,” Portman said. “That’s all we’re looking for.”

Rick Merluzzi, president and chief operating officer of Metal Exchange Corp., the parent of Pennex, said the market looks promising in the near-term, especially since automakers today demand more aluminum content in vehicles. “Today in the auto industry, you see a lot of conversions – the most famous of which is the Ford F-150,” he said. “I think that we’re poised for a lot of growth.”

Still, Pennex needs to compete for this business, Merluzzi said, which drives improvements in quality. “We have a great workforce here. We continue to invest and improve.”

Merluzzi said his company is working with the industry to ensure fair trade and that there are good markets in which to compete.

After his tour, Portman talked with employees for about 45 minutes on a broad range of topics, including health care, opioid addiction, improving health care for veterans, the media – even the last book he read.

Responding to a question about the future of Obamacare, Portman emphasized it’s clear that former president Obama’s signature policy has largely failed and needs to be replaced with a more sensible plan. Portman advocates health savings accounts, or HSAs, in which individuals can create a tax-free account devoted to paying health care deductibles. Another factor is to enact tort reform to prohibit frivolous lawsuits against the medical profession, which has caused costs to rise, he said.

Other provisions of the law should be left intact, he added, such as protecting those with pre-existing conditions from being denied health insurance.

Portman also highlighted his efforts to combat heroin and opioid addiction through prevention, education and long-term recovery programs. “It’s not a Republican issue, a Democrat issue, it’s an American issue.”

As for the Trump administration, Portman acknowledges that the president may have gotten off to “a rocky start” regarding immigration policy and the travel ban. “The extreme vetting wasn’t well-vetted,” he said. “I think they have a new order coming out now that makes more sense.”

Portman said he is very impressed with the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. “I think Gorsuch is going to be a great Supreme Court justice,” he said. “He’s brought people together to try to come up with opinions.”

And the last book the senator has read?

“Hilbilly Elegy,” Portman answered. The memoir by J.D. Vance tells the story of life and family struggles in a town in rural western Ohio, not far from the senator’s hometown of Cincinnati.

“It’s about their lives in Ohio, and it goes right up to today with the drug issue,” he said.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.