Disarray plagues US companies' efforts to win tariff exemptions

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WASHINGTON — For several weeks this spring, a handful of employees at a Texas steel manufacturer stopped producing the pipes used to drill thousands of feet below the earth's surface to concentrate full time on another task: trying to win the company an exemption from President Donald Trump's metals tariffs.

Borusan Mannesmann Pipe U.S. filed 19 separate requests with the Commerce Department asking it to exempt the multiple shapes, sizes and forms of steel pipes that it imports from its parent company in Turkey and then finishes at a plant in Baytown, Texas. Until it gets an answer, the 60-year-old business is paying significantly higher prices for imports of the raw material and is putting off any major projects.

In the two months since the Trump administration's steel and aluminum tariffs went into effect, the Commerce Department has been deluged with more than 8,200 exemption requests from companies that import foreign metals. With just a handful of countries temporarily exempted from Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs, companies are scrambling to win exemptions for every screw and spring they import, with each width and length requiring stand-alone filings. One company alone has submitted 1,167 of the filings, according to government officials.

The imposition of tariffs was supposed to help protect U.S. companies from foreign competition. But they have also created a chaotic, time-consuming process and provoked uncertainty among executives, who are delaying investment, expansion and hiring as a result.

The disarray stems from the vastness of the administration's attempt to reshape the rules of global trade in a matter of months, as it threatens a trade war with China and races to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The Commerce Department has yet to grant any company an official exemption. A department official said that the agency was making "an unprecedented effort to process the requests expeditiously" and that companies with a valid need for foreign products should rest assured that their needs will be met.

To deal with the flood of applications, the department has added about a dozen workers dedicated to processing the applications, bringing the total number to 19.

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