WASHINGTON – Carlos M. Gutierrez (search), President Bush's nominee for commerce secretary, pledged on Wednesday to vigorously fight unfair trade practices that hinder the ability of American companies to compete around the world.
With America's trade deficit running at record levels, Gutierrez heard numerous complaints from members of the Senate Commerce Committee that the government must be more aggressive against countries that use unfair trade practices (search) to block the sale of American exports and to pirate U.S. music, movies and computer software.
"The U.S. government has failed to aggressively enforce our trade laws," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told Gutierrez. "The United States is failing to vigilantly protect intellectual property rights (search), not addressing illegal trade subsidies and China's manipulation of the yuan," its currency.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., told Gutierrez that the problem was particularly critical in industries such as movies, music and software which are losing sales because of copyright piracy.
Gutierrez voiced sympathy for the concerns and pledged to see what could be done to speed up government investigations into trade cases.
Gutierrez, who headed the cereal giant Kellogg Co. (search), before being selected to join the Cabinet, said he was familiar with copyright piracy because his own company's products had been a target.
"This is a matter to focus on. It is a big issue," he said.
Gutierrez was peppered with questions about trade disputes covering a variety of products ranging from softwood lumber and steel to imports of concentrated orange juice from Brazil. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the products were being sold in the United States at unfairly low prices, a practice known as dumping.
In most instances, Gutierrez gave noncommittal answers about what the Bush administration would do in specific trade disputes, pledging to look into the matters being raised if he was confirmed.
Many senators announced during the hearing that they planned to vote for Gutierrez and Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, pledged to bring the nomination to the Senate floor as soon as possible, possibly this week.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., however, said he objected to being forced to vote before Gutierrez had the opportunity to respond to a series of written questions he had on trade matters. Rockefeller's objections likely will mean Gutierrez's nomination will not be taken up until Congress comes back into session on Jan. 20 for the inauguration.
Gutierrez was picked in late November to succeed Bush friend Donald Evans at the Commerce Department.
Various members of the committee raised questions about administration efforts to bolster U.S. manufacturing companies, which have shed 2.7 million jobs in the past four years. The administration has created a "manufacturing czar" inside the Commerce Department to provide a coordinated government response.
On a separate issue, Gutierrez also pledged to look into what could be done to expand the tsunami warning system that is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (search). The detection buoys it operates do not cover the Indian Ocean, site of last month's devastating tsunami.
Bush's selection of Gutierrez reflected another step in the administration's courting of Hispanics, but represented a break from past presidents who have tended to choose close political allies to be commerce secretary.
Business groups have praised Gutierrez, 51, who joined Kellogg Co. in 1975 as a sales representative selling cereal from a van. He rose to become general manager of Kellogg's Mexican manufacturing operations in 1983 and took over as chief executive of the entire company in April 1999.
The White House is hoping that Gutierrez will be able to use his sales abilities to good effect in pushing the administration's entire economic agenda. It includes not only turning around the fortunes of the U.S. manufacturing sector but also promoting Bush's proposed Social Security and tax overhaul plans.