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SolarWorld trade case brings unpredictable politics, including a Wyden-Merkley split

December 6, 2017
In The News

As SolarWorld Americas Inc. and its Hillsboro workforce await a Trump administration decision that could spell their fate, politicians are staking out unpredictable positions on the company’s high-profile trade case.

SolarWorld, with fellow petitioner Suniva Inc., is seeking tariffs and quotas after a finding by U.S. trade regulators that the domestic solar manufacturing industry has been substantially harmed by a flood of cheap imports. The wider U.S. industry is overwhelmingly opposed to that position, fearing it will lead to higher prices, declining installations and job losses.

Oregon’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, backs strong action — so fervently, that he testified at a U.S. International Trade Commission hearing in October. It’s about jobs, he says, and about sustaining the R&D and innovation that come with a thriving manufacturing sector.

Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, whose district includes SolarWorld’s plant, joined Wyden in testifying in support of SolarWorld.

But their fellow Oregon Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley, believes subsidies, not tariffs, are the way to go.

"I would like to see us to take an approach that would assist the American companies so they could lower their prices and compete with industry at lower prices," Merkley recently told the news site Axios.

That puts Merkley in a camp that includes a growing number of Republicans who are asking the president to steer clear of tarrifs.

On Tuesday, the House Clean Energy & Innovation Working Group, a Republicans-only group, warned that tarrifs could cause “solar prices to spike significantly," with devastating impacts.

Then on Wednesday, a group of six Republican senators, in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, said tariffs “would cause irreparable damage to our domestic solar industry.”

Lighthizer could be a key player in the administration's ultimate determination of a remedy.

While the U.S. International Trade Commission has issued its own recommendations, Lighthizer is working on putting together a brief of his own for the president — a "supplemental report to assist the President in determining the appropriate and feasible action to take that will facilitate efforts by the domestic industry to make a positive adjustment to import competition and provide greater economic and social benefits than costs," as he put it.

That effort has pushed back the due date two weeks for a decision by Trump, who has wide latitude to reject, accept or remake the recommendations he's given, to Jan. 26.