Tester: White House battle with U.S. trade partners threatens Montana’s economy

Sen. Jon Tester on Tuesday maintained his concern over recent tariffs placed on goods from the nation’s leading trade partners and the impacts they could have on Montana’s agricultural producers and small manufacturers.

During a media call, Tester said he’s met with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, local producers and the Saskatchewan premier, all of whom aired concerns over recent White House tariffs and the impacts retaliatory action could have on the state’s economy.

“You put the tariffs on steel and aluminum, the first thing they’ll do right after putting tariffs on ag products is put tariffs on steel and aluminum going the other direction,” Tester said. “It’s going to create problems for builders, create problems for ag, and create problems for our economy.”

Last month, the White House imposed a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imported from the country’s top trading partners, including Canada, Europe and Mexico.

Canada is set to respond by placing up to $16 billion in retaliatory tariffs on a long list of U.S. imports, effective on July 1. Canada is Montana’s top trading partner.

“To begin a fight with Canada over this stuff instead of fixing the issues with NAFTA and to start calling people names isn’t helpful, and it’s not helpful for our economy in the state of Montana,” Tester said. “I’m concerned we’re alienating some of our allies that have been around and with us since WWII, and I don’t think that makes the country safer.”

Tester said Montana producers and small businesses have worked hard over decades to establish new markets outside the U.S. When they lose those customers, he said, it’s hard to get them back.

When they don’t come back, he added, it affects a producer’s bottom line.

“Montana exports more barley to Mexico than any other country in the world, and Mexico just signed a grain agreement with Argentina,” Tester said. “This is the kind of stuff that happens when you don’t negotiate for better deals but start throwing deals out.”

Earlier this month, the White House also ordered $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods in retaliation for the theft of intellectual property. China responded by placing tariffs on U.S. exports, including beef.

On Tuesday, the White House directed the U.S. Trade Representative to prepare a new round of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, bringing the world’s two largest economies closer to a trade war.

China has already threatened a counter measure, leading economic experts to warn that the results could lead to price inflation and consumer debt – ingredients for an economic slowdown.

“China has been screwing things up, and we need to hold them accountable, but don’t throw away your markets in the process,” Tester said. “We’ve got an economy that’s moving along pretty well right now. It’ll take these bumps a little bit, but once it starts sliding, it doesn’t turn around very quick. I’ve been hearing a lot about this.”

Tester said the Farm Bill, which cleared a key U.S. Senate committee last week and includes a number of initiatives important to Montana producers, could help dampen the impact on Montana’s farmers and ranchers.

But some conservatives in Washington oppose such agricultural subsidies, Tester said.

“The Senate version of the Farm Bill does right by Montana family farmers and ranchers, especially with a looming trade war with some of our most important trading partners,” Tester said.

“But I guarantee you there are people who will want to take that safety net away,” Tester added. “There are people who don’t want to see any subsidies whatsoever, and they have some influence. They don’t understand the challenges of rain and markets and the challenges in rural America.”