Senate Confirms Wilbur Ross as Commerce Secretary

February 28, 2017 Updated: February 28, 2017
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WASHINGTON—The Senate on Monday confirmed billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary as President Donald Trump adds to his economic team.

Vice President Mike Pence has administered the oath of office to Wilbur Ross on Tuesday, a day after the Senate voted 72-27 to confirm him.

Ross said the Trump administration will work quickly to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the massive trade pact with Canada and Mexico signed in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton.

Senators from both political parties were deferential to Ross at his nearly four-hour confirmation hearing, which was much more subdued than the confirmation hearings of other Trump nominees. Former commerce secretaries have praised him, including one who served under former President Barack Obama.

“Mr. Ross will bring decades of business, entrepreneurial and civic experience to this important position,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee. “I believe his extensive management experience in the private sector, and his understanding of the challenges faced by workers and businesses alike, will equip him well for the job of leading the Department of Commerce.”

As part of his ethics agreement, Ross is giving up his position at tanker operator Diamond S. Shipping, but he will retain a stake in the company, which ships petroleum and other products. As part of the agreement, Ross has promised not to take any action as commerce secretary that would benefit any company in which he has a financial interest.

At his confirmation hearing, Ross was not asked about business ties to Russia or his work as a mortgage lender, and he did not address the issues.

Senators did note that Ross is divesting from much of his business empire.

Worth an estimated $2.9 billion, 79-year-old Ross has extensive business ties around the globe. In 2000, he founded WL Ross & Co., a private equity firm. As part of his ethics agreement, Ross will divest from the firm.

So far, the Senate has confirmed 15 out of 22 Trump Cabinet or Cabinet-level picks requiring confirmation. Senators also moved forward Monday on Trump’s nomination of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, voting 67-31 to limit debate. A final vote on confirmation could occur on Tuesday or Wednesday.

During the presidential campaign, Trump criticized U.S. trade deals, including NAFTA. Trump’s stance on trade is at odds with many Republicans in Congress, but it endeared him to voters who believe the trade deal cost American jobs.

Ross said all free trade agreements should be systematically re-opened every few years to make sure they are working in the best interests of the United States.

Ross said he is pro-free trade but noted his close relationship with the United Steelworkers union as proof that he will fight to protect American jobs. The union has endorsed him.

The commerce secretary has several roles in promoting American business interests in the United States and abroad. The department handles trade issues, working to attract foreign investment to the United States. He’ll also oversee agencies that manage fisheries, weather forecasting and the Census Bureau, which will conduct the next national headcount in 2020.

Ross said he has experience at that agency; he was a census-taker while he attended business school.