By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Commerce Department
plans to toughen rules against what it sees as unfair foreign
trade practices that threaten U.S. jobs, senior department
officials said in advance of new proposals coming Thursday.
At least one of the 14 ideas under discussion could lead to
higher duties on China, which has been the most frequent target
of U.S. complaints about unfair trade in recent years.
But the plan seeks to strengthen the effectiveness of U.S.
trade protection measures "across a range of areas," a senior
Commerce Department official told Reuters. "This is a process
that will play out during the course of the fall."
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke ordered a review of the
department's rules and procedures governing anti-dumping and
countervailing duties as part President Barack Obama's
initiative to double exports in five years.
Conspicuously missing from the new proposals is a decision
on whether to investigate China's exchange rate practices as an
unfair foreign subsidy, a diplomatically explosive issue before
the department in two pending trade cases.
Many lawmakers and manufacturers say China's "undervalued"
currency gives it an unfair price advantage in global markets.
The department has been mulling for months whether it has a
strong legal grounding to investigate the charge.
Rollout of the new proposals follows a recent Commerce
Department report showing that imports surged unexpectedly in
June, one of many indicators that have raised concern about the
strength of the U.S. economic recovery.
Heading into November congressional elections, the Obama
administration also has an incentive to appear tough on trade
to help Democrats in vulnerable
However, less than 3 percent of imports into the United
States are hit with anti-dumping or countervailing duties, so
the proposed changes would affect a small portion of trade.
Department officials spotlighted three proposals they
believed would have the most impact.
One would require importers to pay a cash deposit to cover
preliminary duties once they are announced.
Currently, importers have the option of posting bonds at a
fraction of their liability for the five or six months until
final duties are set.
PROPOSAL TARGETS CHINA
That has led to problems collecting the full amount the
government is owed, department officials said.
"We think this is a way to better ensure that companies
that ... may ultimately be liable for a dumping duty actually
have the wherewithal to pay," a department official said.
A second proposed change would allow the department to
subtract Chinese export taxes when calculating the size of
anti-dumping or countervailing duties.
That is common practice now for unfairly traded goods from
"market economies" like Japan and countries in Europe. But it
has not been the case for "non-market economies" like China on
the theory the taxes are too hard to measure.
China will "undoubtedly" be upset by the proposal because
it will lead to higher duties on its goods, the Commerce
Department official said.
The third major proposal would stop the practice of
removing individual foreign companies from anti-dumping orders
if they can show during three annual administrative reviews
they haven't dumped products in the United States.
Such companies could still receive a zero duty rate under
the new proposal. But they would remain subject to the order,
keeping them on notice that their duty could be increased if
Commerce finds new evidence of unfair trading.
"This provides us with more of a guarantee that we can have
better surveillance of the effectiveness of the order," the
Commerce Department official said.
A trade attorney briefed by Reuters on the proposed changes
described them as long overdue and said he was confident none
of them violated World Trade Organization rules.
"I think they will be helpful to domestic industries who
are having problems with unfair foreign trade practices," said
Paul Rosenthal, managing partner at the Washington office of
Kelley Drye and Warren, which has represented many clients
seeking trade relief.
They should not lead to a surge of new anti-dumping or
countervailing duty cases, but will improve the effectiveness
of relief when it is provided, he said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Todd Eastham)