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As Senate Weighs Biden’s Commerce Pick, Here’s What to Watch

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WASHINGTON – The commercial division has taken on a new role in recent years and has extensive powers over issues such as technology exports and climate change. On Tuesday, President Biden’s candidate to run the sprawling agency, Gina M. Raimondo, will appear before the Senate Trade Committee for a confirmation hearing. Ms. Raimondo, the current governor of Rhode Island, is a moderate Democrat and former venture capitalist.

Here are five things to consider when the hearing starts at 10 a.m.

Senators from both parties are likely to ask Ms. Raimondo how she intends to use the powers of the Department of Commerce to counter China’s growing domination of cutting edge and sensitive technologies, such as advanced telecommunications and artificial intelligence.

The Trump administration extensively used the Department’s agencies to crack down on Chinese tech firms, often turning to the entity list, which allows the United States to prevent companies from selling American products and technologies to certain foreign firms to sell without first obtaining a license. Dozens of companies have been added to the Department of Commerce’s list, including telecommunications giants like Huawei and ZTE, which many American lawmakers see as a threat to national security.

“You can be pretty sure members are calling for a hard line,” said William Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was a senior trade official during the Clinton administration.

The Department of Commerce was also tasked with setting out President Donald J. Trump’s US ban on Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat social media apps – actions that were later stopped by a court order – and investigating bans on other Chinese apps . Mr Biden said he viewed TikTok’s access to American data as “seriously worrying,” but it is unclear how the new administration will address these issues.

However, the Commerce Department has other roles that some tech experts claim have been underutilized in the Trump administration, such as the role it plays in setting global technology standards that private companies must operate under. China has taken an increasingly active role in global standards-setting bodies in recent years and helped ensure adoption of technologies made in China, Reinsch said, and senators could urge Ms. Raimondo on the matter.

Mr. Biden has highlighted Ms. Raimondo’s role in promoting small businesses as Governor of Rhode Island – both before and during the pandemic.

As trade secretary, she would appoint certain agencies that could help get companies into trouble and advance the Biden administration’s goals of building domestic industry and revitalizing American research and development.

These include economic development programs and manufacturing partnerships that the Department of Commerce offers to small and medium-sized businesses, as well as its core mission of promoting American exports.

The department could also play a bigger role in expanding high-speed internet access to rural and low-income communities. This is a particularly critical issue as the pandemic has forced a lot of commerce and online schooling. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce, leads the government’s broadband access efforts.

Updated

Jan. 25, 2021, 9:55 p.m. ET

Ms. Raimondo could ask questions about the department’s planned role in enforcing trade rules. It has a responsibility to impose tariffs on foreign countries that are found to be wrongly subsidizing and valued their goods, making them cheaper to sell in the United States.

The Trump administration also began to view countries’ manipulation of their currency – which can further reduce the cost of a product abroad – as some kind of foreign subsidy, and introduced the first tariffs to counter this. This move is popular with trade unions and many Congressional Democrats, but it has roused foreign allies and it is unclear how aggressively the Biden administration will pursue policy.

Another likely question for Ms. Raimondo concerns the tariffs Mr. Trump imposed on foreign steel and aluminum, ostensibly to protect U.S. national security. Mr Biden, Ms. Raimondo and others have to decide whether to maintain or remove these tariffs, which are supported by metalworking unions but are deeply unpopular with foreign governments and other industries whose prices have risen as a result.

President Trump and his deputies at the Commerce Department cited controversial efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the state census conducted by the Census Bureau, which is then used to determine Congressional representation and federal funding.

These efforts, which would have given the Republicans more political power, failed after numerous legal challenges and delays in calculating the data. Democrats sharply criticized the effort, calling it unconstitutional.

Senate committee members can ask Ms. Raimondo to confirm how the Census Bureau will calculate its future population data and when the census will provide the latest figures.

Like some of Mr. Biden’s other nominees, Ms. Raimondo has seen some backlash from progressive Democrats who have criticized her close ties with venture capital and big technology companies. Prior to running for political office, Ms. Raimondo was a founding associate at Bain Capital-backed investment firm Village Ventures and co-founder of her own venture capital firm Point Judith Capital.

Some progressives have also condemned certain actions she has taken as governor of Rhode Island, including clashes with unions during a revision of state pension plans and extending liability coverage to nursing homes and healthcare facilities during the pandemic. However, Democrats who support Ms. Raimondo’s swift endorsement are unlikely, if at all, to push too hard on these issues.

Some Republicans have referred to an ethical complaint by the Republican Party of Rhode Island against Ms. Raimondo complaining that the state awarded a $ 1 billion contract to a gaming company called International Global Solutions Corporation without a tender process. A lobbyist for the group was also an official for the Democratic Governors Association, which Ms. Raimondo ran. However, that complaint was dismissed in 2020 and the Raimondo press office has labeled the problem a partisan attack.

Overall, Ms. Raimondo’s potential controversies appear tame compared to her predecessor, financier Wilbur Ross, who was embroiled in a scandal over his role in the department’s census and weather forecasting, and over myriad investment relationships with overseas companies .

Ms. Raimondo’s financial disclosure forms released earlier this month also appear undisputed, showing an annual salary of $ 150,245 from the state of Rhode Island, plus cash, investment accounts and other assets of $ 2.9-7.5 million, mainly Investment funds.

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Robert Dunfee