WASHINGTON — Tariffs and trade were the big government-related news out of Washington in 2019, a year in which partisan gridlock combined with the pending impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to prevent much legislation from passing Congress.
The best political news for Mr. Trump in 2019 was approval of the draft of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which occurred in December in Mexico City.
The USMCA, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in effect since 1994, modernizes the provisions of NAFTA while providing additional protections for workers and the environment.
The U.S. House of Representatives ratified the USMCA in late December, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated the Senate would not take up the trade pact until the impeachment trial was over.
The USMCA was nearly derailed in June when Mr. Trump announced plans — later abandoned — to levy tariffs on all goods imported from Mexico in retaliation for Mexico's failure to help stem illegal immigration.
Tariffs already were a fraught subject in the case of China, with which the U.S. fought an escalating trade war throughout the year. The two nations levied tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of each other's goods, including tires, auto parts, mechanical rubber goods, rubber chemicals and natural and synthetic polymers.
Opinions on the tariffs were sharply divided among U.S. businesses. The nation's retreaders supported tariffs on low-cost new Chinese truck tires as a counterbalance against what they said was unfair competition. Also, the Alliance for American Manufacturing opposed a bill to limit the president's ability to levy tariffs against foreign goods.
On the other hand, groups such as the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), the Auto Care Association (ACA) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said tariffs disrupted the chain of distribution and were unduly harmful to their members.
A comprehensive infrastructure spending bill to refurbish U.S. roads and bridges is high on the wish list of nearly every U.S. industry, but infrastructure legislation did not move quickly in 2019.
The most prominent infrastructure bill was Senate Bill 2302, America's Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, which was introduced in July by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and placed on the Senate calendar Aug. 1.
Among other things, SB-2302 would:
- Provide $287 billion in highway spending from the Highway Trust Fund over five years;
- Authorize more than $6 billion over five years for a competitive grant program for renovation of bridges; and
- Create supplemental funding of $500 million annually to support projects to lower driver and pedestrian fatalities.
Other federal bills of interest to industry that were introduced in 2019 included the RPM Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Richard Burr, R-N.C. and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. The RPM Act is designed to protect the rights of American motorists to convert street vehicles into race cars and the motorsports parts industry's right to sell products that allow those conversions.
The RPM Act is a major priority for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).
Legislative action in 2019 tended to be the province of state legislatures, with the industry passionately supporting some state bills and just as ardently opposing others.
The U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association (USTMA) won victories in Ohio and California with the enactment of USTMA-sponsored bills forbidding the installation of unsafe used tires on vehicles in those states.
The legislation defines unsafe used tires as those with 1/16th inch of tread depth or less; damage exposing steel belts or other internal components; improper repairs; or sidewall bulges indicating internal damage.
Ohio and California are the third and fourth states, after Colorado and New Jersey, to enact the USTMA's unsafe used tire legislation.
The Automotive Service Association (ASA) managed to beat back some state bills it opposed. A Missouri bill that would have repealed that state's requirement that all vehicles have a safety inspection before being licensed died in the Missouri Senate. A Wyoming bill that would have dictated replacement parts policy in auto collision repairs also failed to advance.
However, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed an ASA-supported bill that would have required repair facilities to follow original equipment manufacturers' repair procedures to ensure that vehicles are returned to their owners with the same functionality as they had before a collision.
In Maryland, the Tire Industry Association (TIA) was active in opposing a state bill that would have required crumb rubber synthetic turf for playgrounds and athletic fields to be recycled in "closed-loop" recycling facilities.
The bill, TIA said, would have wrongly classified synthetic turf as a hazardous waste. It did not pass in 2019, but is expected to be reintroduced in 2020.