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With auto tariffs on the horizon, a warning from U.S. carmakers

Ford Mustangs are assembled at a plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in 2004. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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Today U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that proposed tariffs on foreign auto parts have been placed on hold. The reason, Ross told the Wall Street Journal, is all the other trade news is taking up too much time — NAFTA, China, tariffs, testimonies, the trade war.

Ann Wilson, the senior vice president for government relations at the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, will testify in front of the U.S. Trade Representative on Thursday as the agency focuses on proposed tariffs for $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. The following in edited transcript of her conversation with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal.

Kai Ryssdal: Were you surprised at Secretary Ross’ decision this morning to push back this timeline on the car tariffs?

Ann Wilson: Well, I think we were very pleased with the decision the secretary — we’ve been very concerned about a couple of things. One is the amount of information that the Department of Commerce has received is going to take time to go through. And then secondly, I think the other concern that everybody needs to have is the impact that this is going to have on the economy overall. And I think the more time that Commerce takes to look at this, the more time the administration considers the employment and the cost implications of a tariff, the better the decision we may get at the end.

Ryssdal: Can I ask you just a daily life in the office question? I mean, we in the news business, our heads are spinning every time we turn around with new tariffs and whatnot. What’s it like trying to manage your slice of trade policy and your members’ interests when every day brings a new thing?

Wilson: I think one of the things that has puzzled our members is why this administration is really focused on the auto industry. Our jobs have grown over the last five years. We’re investing more in the U.S. We have new technology that we’re putting on vehicles every day. And so it’s really questionable, why focus on us? Why put all these punitive tariffs on both consumers and the auto industry overall?

Ryssdal: Let me ask you your own question though: Why do you suppose the president dangles automobile tariffs on a fairly regular basis?

Wilson: Well, I do think, you know, when you purchase a vehicle, it’s the second-largest purchase that most people make. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the global supply chain and the impact that has on U.S. workers. But what we’re trying to make sure that people understand — there are a lot of good jobs in the U.S. and that what we should be trying to do is focus on how we retain those jobs and grow those jobs in our country rather than just trying to sort of put the flour back in the bag and get jobs back here that we haven’t had in decades.

Ryssdal: What’s your general level of hopefulness about trade in this economy?

Wilson: I am cautiously pessimistic. I think there’s an opportunity for us to work our way through this and come up with better trade agreements. But if we continue to add tariff upon tariff on imported goods, we’re going to find investments leave this country, we’re not going to grow jobs and we’re going to find ourselves at the losing end of new technology.

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