WASHINGTON – Commerce Secretary nominee Carlos M. Gutierrez (search) is promising to aggressively fight the unfair trade practices of foreign nations and to speed up the government's handling of individual cases.
With America's annual trade deficit expected to top $600 billion for 2004, senators peppered Gutierrez with questions during his confirmation hearing (search) Wednesday about efforts to protect American manufacturers. Those companies have lost 2.7 million jobs over the past four years.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (search), D-N.D., said the "growing and dangerous" trade deficits have been ignored by the Bush administration and those going back nearly 20 years.
"This Congress and this administration and previous administrations seem willing to snore through it by chanting about free trade," Dorgan said.
Gutierrez said if he was confirmed by the Senate, he would support the administration's efforts to expand opportunities for American exporters by striking trade deals around the world. But he said he would also make sure the Commerce Department was doing everything possible to halt unfair trade practices.
"As someone who does business in a way where we like to follow the rules, it is sometimes extremely frustrating when we find that our partners overseas aren't following the same rules," Gutierrez said.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, pledged to move the nomination through his committee as quickly as possible. He predicted swift approval by the Senate, probably on Jan. 20, the date President Bush will be sworn in for a second term.
Gutierrez, 51, is head of the Kellogg Co., the world's largest cereal maker. He was tapped by Bush in November to succeed Donald Evans, who resigned to return to Texas.
In Gutierrez, the administration believes it has obtained a top salesman to help push an ambitious second-term economic agenda that includes overhauls of Social Security and the tax code.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee complained about the failure of the government to do enough to crack down on unfair trade practices. Many members focused on China, the country that has the largest trade surplus with the United States.
"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, not addressing illegal trade subsidies and China's manipulation of the yuan," its currency.
U.S. manufacturing companies contend that China's practice of linking its currency to the U.S. dollar has resulted in the yuan being undervalued by as much as 40 percent, giving Chinese goods a huge competitive advantage against American products.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., complained about copyright piracy by China and other countries that he said has cost thousands of jobs in the movie, music, publishing and computer software industries.
Gutierrez called copyright piracy "a big issue" and pledged to make it a priority.
Senators asked Gutierrez about trade disputes covering a variety of products, ranging from softwood lumber and steel to imports of concentrated orange juice from Brazil. He dodged making commitments about specific government actions, saying he needed further briefings.
Gutierrez joined Kellogg Co. in 1975 as a sales representative, selling cereal from a van in Mexico City, and rose through the ranks to head the entire company in April 1999.
Turning around Kellogg's fading fortunes by focusing sales on various higher-end products, he became one of the most prominent Hispanic business leaders in the country.
As head of Kellogg, a big user of sugar, Gutierrez sought to end the government's quota system, which drives up domestic prices. He told the senators he would recuse himself from participating in sugar issues while at Commerce if ethics lawyers ruled that he had a conflict of interest.