WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan is forging two paths on behalf of the American steel industry.
The first — and arguably the slowest — is a proposed measure introduced in the House of Representatives that would immediately halt imports of foreign steel for five years. This would assuage U.S. manufacturers and steelworkers saddled with mass layoffs and job slowdowns due to “dumping” into the U.S. market from foreign countries.
The second — and most likely the quickest — is to urge President Obama basically to do the same thing by executive order, a measure that has been used before.
In 2002, President George W. Bush used his authority to basically impose high, but temporary, tariffs and duties to foreign steel. That pretty much halted imports and allowed American steel producers time to recover from massive layoffs at the time.
Ultimately, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that the action was illegal, and Bush lifted the tariffs a year later.
Even though steel demand is higher than in previous years, American steel is in the grips of another crisis: More than 9,000 people have been laid off nationally, including nearly 2,000 workers on the Iron Range, representing more than 40 percent of the region’s mining workforce.
Cliffs Natural Resources has idled two of its Minnesota-based iron-ore operations just in the past six months. In August, 420 unionized United Taconite workers were laid off, and just a week ago, the company announced another 500 layoffs at Northshore Mining.
“That’s not only devastating for those workers and their families, it’s devastating for the community, it’s devastating for the entire Range and it’s devastating for the national economy,” Nolan said.
Nolan, Democratic U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton have applied steady pressure on the Obama administration to do more about the illegal dumping of low-cost steel from foreign countries.
Last week, the same four leaders sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor asking officials to expedite benefits for recently laid-off steelworkers at Magnetation Inc. And Dayton has proposed a special legislative session to extend state jobless benefits to hundreds of laid-off steelworkers.
In the past year, there have been 157 determinations of illegal dumping, mostly from Asia. Nolan said this is proof that something bolder needs to be done. He, the senators and the governor have requested a meeting with Obama to take up the matter.
That’s probably the only way the measure will go anywhere. Nolan is not likely to have much luck in the GOP-controlled House, where free-trade bills have reigned and proposals to protect U.S. companies have not generated much enthusiasm.
“If a couple of big time free-traders like [President Ronald] Reagan and Bush can take that kind of action, there is no reason President Obama can’t do the same thing,” Nolan said. “We need to do it right now before it’s too late.”