The S.C. business community is sounding alarm bells over President Donald Trump’s trade policies as Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation try to ease frayed nerves.
But the stakes are getting higher for some of the state’s biggest manufacturers, and they’re asking Washington lawmakers to step in and speak up.
S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Ted Pitts sent a letter Tuesday to each of the nine S.C. congressmen in Washington, imploring them to do “whatever it takes to inform the administration about the jobs at risk” in imposing tariffs on imported automobiles.
“The administration’s approach to tariffs and trade needs to be broader in thought and more targeted in its application,” Pitts wrote. “Otherwise, it will cost South Carolina jobs as manufacturers do what any business would do: shift production to other facilities around the world where it costs less to do business.”
Pitts added, “We cannot negatively impact some of our best corporate citizens, strongest international allies and most reliable trade partners and expect anything other than lost jobs and company closures that reverse the economic development progress we have celebrated over the last decade.”
The potential for economic devastation from Trump’s new economic sanctions on various goods from China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union looms large in South Carolina, home to a large manufacturing base that relies on imported materials to make everything from cars to refrigerators. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report warning the state would be the third hardest-hit by retaliatory tariffs.
According to the report, 579,300 S.C. jobs are supported by trade. Also, more than $3 billion in state exports are threatened by the new tariffs.
The German car manufacturing giant BMW has a massive plant in Greer. Though it has not announced plans to reduce the workforce there, many fear layoffs could come later as BMW prepares to skirt tariffs by ramping up SUV production in China.
Volvo of Sweden is preparing to start building cars near Charleston later this year but is questioning whether to add 2,000 additional jobs as originally planned, citing the tariffs.
In an interview with McClatchy last week, Pitts said he thought there were members of the S.C. congressional delegation who “have the ear of the administration” who potentially could make a difference.
Pitts mentioned U.S. Sens. Tim Scott of Charleston and Lindsey Graham of Seneca as two lawmakers who could have the greatest impact. Both have good relationships with the administration – Graham, in particular, has struck up an alliance with Trump – and have participated in White House meetings with the president to discuss trade specifically.
Scott, a member of the Senate Finance Committee with jurisdiction over trade issues, told McClatchy he was fielding “concerns” from S.C. businesses and communicating them to the administration directly.
“You can’t win a trade war; no one wins it,” Scott said, “and ultimately, if the administration is pushing in that direction, it’s bad news for everybody.”
But Scott cautioned fears of a trade war might be premature, as would be a legislative response from Capitol Hill.
“Right now, we are more afraid of the outcome of our trade negotiations, and we haven’t seen the manifestation of those fears yet,” Scott explained. “It’s easy for us to weigh in. It’s harder for us to direct from Congress.”
Graham said he was urging S.C. businesses to let Trump negotiate better trade deals, specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada. He added Trump is right; there is a need to level the trade playing field, particularly with China.
“I would tell (S.C. businesses), ‘I get your message, but you gotta understand why President Trump won, and this will hopefully turn out well, it’s better for business if some barriers fall,’” said Graham. “You make a car in Greenville and sell it in Europe, it’s like five times the tariff and that needs to change.”
U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, also sought to downplay concerns among S.C. businesses. Late last year, Norman lobbied the administration heavily to spare large residential washing machine imports from tariffs, fearing they would impact operations at a newly-opened Samsung plant in Newberry, in his district.
But Norman recently told Fox News that he supported Trump’s trade policies.
“Long term, I just think it’s good for the country,” he said. “When you take medicine for the first time … you hurt for a while.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, has been the most strident opponent to the tariffs, recently penning an op-ed warning Trump’s trade policies put “the South Carolina’s economy in an extremely precarious position.”
But Sanford just lost his primary election, in part thanks to Trump endorsing his opponent, so it’s not likely the Lowcountry congressman will be able to make a compelling pitch to the administration to back off on launching a trade war.
Meanwhile, perceived Republican resistance to challenging Trump on tariffs has become a rallying cry for Democrats, including S.C. gubernatorial candidate James Smith, who released a statement on Monday challenging GOP Gov. Henry McMaster to “decide which is more important to him: to support the president’s destructive economic isolationism, or to stand up for South Carolina’s proud tradition of trading with the world to the benefit of the people of this state.”
Correction: This story has been edited to reflect that BMW has not announced decreased production of SUVs in Greer.