As Senate Weighs Biden’s Commerce Pick, Here’s What to Watch
WASHINGTON — The Commerce Department has taken on new importance in recent years, with wide-ranging authority over issues as broad as technology exports and climate change. On Tuesday, President Biden’s nominee to run the sprawling agency, Gina M. Raimondo, will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee for a confirmation hearing. Ms. Raimondo, the current governor of Rhode Island, is a moderate Democrat and former venture capitalist.
Here are five things to watch for as the hearing gets underway at 10 a.m.
Countering China’s growing technological reach
Senators of both parties are likely to question Ms. Raimondo on how she plans to use the Commerce Department’s powers to counter China’s growing mastery of cutting-edge and sensitive technologies, like advanced telecommunications and artificial intelligence.
The Trump administration made heavy use of the department’s authorities to crack down on Chinese technology firms, turning often to the so-called entity list, which allows the United States to block companies from selling American products and technology to certain foreign firms without first obtaining a license. Dozens of companies have been added to the Commerce Department’s list, including telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE, which many American lawmakers see as threats to national security.
“You can be reasonably confident that the members will demand a tough line” on China, said William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a high-level commerce official during the Clinton administration.
The Commerce Department was also given responsibility for outlining President Donald J. Trump’s U.S. ban on the Chinese-owned social media apps TikTok and WeChat — actions that were subsequently halted by a court order — and for studying bans against other Chinese apps. Mr. Biden has said he sees TikTok’s access to American data as a “matter of genuine concern,” but it’s unclear how the new administration will address these issues.
But the Commerce Department has other capabilities that some tech experts say were underutilized in the Trump administration, like the role it plays in setting global technology standards that private firms must operated under. China has taken an increasingly active role in global standards-setting bodies in recent years, helping to ensure adoption of technologies that are made in China, Mr. Reinsch said, and senators may press Ms. Raimondo on the issue.
Jump-starting the economic recovery
Mr. Biden has emphasized Ms. Raimondo’s role in helping to promote small businesses while serving as the governor of Rhode Island — both before and during the pandemic.
As commerce secretary, she would wield certain authorities that could help struggling businesses and advance the Biden administration’s goals of building up domestic industry and revitalizing American research and development.
That includes economic development programs and manufacturing partnerships that the Commerce Department offers to small and midsize enterprises, as well as its core mission of promoting American exports.
The department could also play a bigger role in expanding high-speed internet access for rural and low-income communities, a particularly critical issue as the pandemic has forced much commerce and schooling online. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department, leads the government’s efforts on broadband access.
Enforcing trade rules and tariffs set by the Trump administration
Ms. Raimondo could face questions about the department’s planned role in enforcing trade rules. It has the responsibility for imposing tariffs on foreign countries that are found to be unfairly subsidizing and pricing their goods, making them cheaper to sell in the United States.
The Trump administration also began considering countries’ manipulation of their currency — which can further drive down the cost of a product abroad — as a type of foreign subsidy, and imposed the first tariffs to counter that. That step is popular with labor unions and many congressional Democrats, but it has rankled foreign allies, and it’s unclear how aggressively the Biden administration will pursue the policy.
Another likely question for Ms. Raimondo relates to the tariffs that Mr. Trump levied on foreign steel and aluminum, ostensibly to protect American national security. Mr. Biden, Ms. Raimondo and others will have to decide whether to maintain or rescind these tariffs, which are supported by metal making unions but deeply unpopular with foreign governments and other industries whose prices rose as a result.
Counting the American electorate without political influence
President Trump and his deputies at the Commerce Department led a controversial effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the state population counts conducted by the Census Bureau, which are then used to determine congressional representation and federal funding.
That effort, which would have translated into more political power for Republicans, failed after numerous court challenges and delays in computing the data. Democrats strongly criticized the effort, calling it unconstitutional.
Members of the Senate committee may seek reassurances from Ms. Raimondo about how the Census Bureau will calculate its population data in the future, and when the Census expects to submit the latest numbers.
Delving into Ms. Raimondo’s past
Like some of Mr. Biden’s other nominees, Ms. Raimondo has faced a bit of backlash from progressive Democrats, who have criticized her close ties with venture capital and big tech firms. Before running for political office, Ms. Raimondo was a founding employee at the investment firm Village Ventures, which was backed by Bain Capital, and co-founded her own venture capital firm, Point Judith Capital.
Some progressives have also condemned certain actions she took as governor of Rhode Island, including clashing with unions during an overhaul of the state’s pension plans and extending some liability protections to nursing homes and health care facilities during the pandemic. But Democrats, who will support Ms. Raimondo’s speedy confirmation, are unlikely to press too hard on these issues, if at all.
Some Republicans have pointed to an ethics complaint filed against Ms. Raimondo by the Rhode Island Republican Party, which complained that the state had granted a $1 billion contract to a gaming company called International Global Solutions Corporation without a competitive bidding process. A lobbyist for the group was also an officer with the Democratic Governors Association, which Ms. Raimondo led. But that complaint was dismissed in 2020, and Raimondo’s press office has described the issue as a partisan attack.
Over all, Ms. Raimondo’s potential controversies appear tame compared with her predecessor, the financier Wilbur Ross, who became enmeshed in scandal over his role in the department’s calculation of the census and weather forecasting, and myriad investment ties to foreign firms.
Ms. Raimondo’s financial disclosure forms, released this month, also appear uncontroversial, showing an annual salary of $150,245 from the state of Rhode Island and between $2.9 million and $7.5 million in cash, investment accounts and other assets, mainly mutual funds.
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