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The Trump administration is preparing to add tariffs or taxes on virtually everything the U.S. buys from China, but the president offered reassurance that in some cases waivers will be granted so Chinese goods can be imported tax-free. The administration has offered similar waivers from its steel and aluminum tariffs. Some say it's put the Commerce Department in the awkward position of picking winners and losers. Republican Congresswoman Jackie Walorski calls the process a, quote, "master class in government inefficiency." NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Trump administration's gotten more than 80,000 requests for relief from its steel and aluminum tariffs imposed last year. And as of last week, well over half those requests were still awaiting a decision. The process has been maddeningly inconsistent for the companies seeking tariff waivers.
PAUL EVERETT: It is a nightmare, like dealing with a lawyer and the IRS at the same time.
HORSLEY: Paul Everett's vice president of purchasing at Omega Steel in St. Louis. The company sells heavy-walled steel pipe mostly to the oil and gas industry. Everett says there are only a handful of mills around the world that can produce that kind of pipe, so Omega has asked the Commerce Department for tariff waivers for numerous specialty products.
EVERETT: We filed approximately 300 exclusions, and we've got, I think, 90 accepted.
HORSLEY: Most of the company's applications for tariff relief are either still in limbo or were rejected usually because an American steel company said they could provide the same steel duty-free.
SCOTT PAUL: The good news from the steel producers' perspective is that the tariffs so far are working.
HORSLEY: Scott Paul represents American steelmakers and steel workers. He says since the tariffs were announced last year, steel imports dropped by a third as customers switched to domestic suppliers.
PAUL: There have been about 12,000 jobs added in steel and aluminum since the tariffs were first announced, and you've seen more product lines come online.
HORSLEY: American steelmakers are only supposed to object to a customer's application for tariff relief if the domestic producer can supply the steel within eight weeks. But in their objections, some U.S. steelmakers have been quoting delivery dates of 21 weeks. And Everett says others have promised products they can't deliver at all.
EVERETT: Some of the mills just can't produce the sizes they say they can and have not ever produced those sizes. But unfortunately nobody's really checking the mills to make sure they're capable of producing the product.
HORSLEY: Domestic steelmakers have successfully blocked thousands of tariff waivers with more than half the objections coming from just a handful of big steel producers. Trade economist Christine McDaniel of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University says U.S. Steel, Nucor and AK Steel have each raised objections to duty-free imports totaling more than the companies actually produce.
CHRISTINE MCDANIEL: They have a very good batting average because when they object to something, it either gets denied, or it just goes into the pending pile.
HORSLEY: Everett says since the government's granted only a few of Omega's requests for tariff waivers, the company's had no choice but to keep paying the 25% tariff. Some steel importers have to absorb that extra cost. But Omega largely passes the bill along to its oil and gas customers.
EVERETT: Nobody wants to pay the additional 25%. The only people that have that kind of money are really in the oil and gas business, and it's a pass-through for them because you're paying for it at the pump.
HORSLEY: That consumer tab is likely to increase as new and increased tariffs on Chinese imports take effect. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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