PROVIDENCE — “I do not believe you will be serving as the governor of Rhode Island for very much longer.”
That was the message US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, delivered to Governor Gina Raimondo Tuesday at the conclusion of a hearing on Raimondo’s nomination to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Commerce.
The two-hour and forty-five minute hearing was largely cordial, as Republican and Democratic Senators on the committee peppered Raimondo with questions on topics that ranged from broadband access and the hospitality industry to fisheries and competition with China.
The senators often took a parochial approach to their questioning – highlighting specific issues that affect their respective states – but the scope of their inquiries showcased the far-reaching role that the Commerce department, with its $14 billion budget and more than 40,000 employees, has on American life.
“Some of the brightest minds in the federal government – indeed some of the best scientists in America – are at the Commerce department, and they deserve leadership that’s supportive, transparent, and driven toward a common mission – building a stronger, more equitable, and more resilient American economy,” Raimondo said during her introductory remarks.
Raimondo, a Democrat who is in her second term as governor, was introduced to the committee by US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, with each offering heartfelt praise for their fellow Rhode Islander. Reed told the committee that he has known Raimondo since she was born, and their families regularly vacationed together when they were young. Reed, in fact, used to babysit Raimondo, and both attended LaSalle Academy for high school.
Whitehouse offered a more straightforward pitch to his colleagues: “You will like working with Secretary Raimondo,” he said. “She is smart, she is practical, she is results-oriented, and she likes getting stuff done.”
The committee was not scheduled to vote on Raimondo’s nomination – she has until Feb. 1 to respond to written questions from various senators – but Wicker said multiple times that he expects her to win confirmation in short order. Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada also used part of her speaking time to urge her colleagues to swiftly confirm Raimondo. As is customary, Raimondo had already submitted her written testimony and questionnaire to the committee.
Raimondo, a former Rhodes scholar and venture capitalist who was elected state treasurer in 2010 and governor four years later, was careful in nearly all of her responses to committee members’ questions, often committing only to work closely with the Senators and largely avoiding taking strong positions on controversial topics, like Chinese tariffs and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields large online platforms like Facebook from liability for content created by their users.
She told the committee that China’s trade practices have been unfair, particularly when it comes to the dumping of cheap steel onto the global market, undercutting American competitors. Raimondo did not specifically commit to continuing former President Donald Trump’s export ban for Huawei Technologies, but the Biden administration has previously signaled it will likely keep those sanctions in place.
“China has clearly behaved in ways that are anti-competitive,” Raimondo said.
“I believe in free trade, but fair trade,” she told the committee.
When Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin pressed Raimondo about censorship for large social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Raimondo said she agrees that Section 230 needs to be reformed. But she was more evasive when Johnson asked if social media companies have amassed too much commercial power.
“I believe in competition and innovation, and as it relates to social media companies, I think they need to be held accountable to what they put on their platform,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo faced very little criticism from the committee, although Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas raised questions about Rhode Island’s poor position in CNBC’s ranking of state business climates.
Raimondo told Cruz that Rhode Island had the highest unemployment rate in the country for much of the time that she was running for governor in 2018, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state enjoyed its lowest unemployment rate in history.
When Cruz pressed Raimondo on Biden’s decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he estimates could cost 11,000 jobs, Raimondo said she wants the Commerce department to help create new jobs and offer training to those who may be out of work.
“Climate change is a threat to all of us,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo said she is committed to coming up with “bold and creative solutions” for support the fishing and hospitality industries, which have been devastated by the pandemic.
On the US Census bureau, another key office within the Commerce Department, Raimondo said said she would rely on the experts to determine whether more time is needed to count every person in the country.
“I believe we need to take the politics out of the census,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo repeatedly committed to expanding broadband internet access throughout the country, although she said that she opposes a nationalized 5G telecommunications network, something the Trump administration favored.
It remains unclear when the committee will schedule a vote on Raimondo’s nomination or when the full Senate might take it up, but Raimondo is scheduled to deliver her State of the State address on Feb. 3. She has said will remain governor until she is confirmed, and then Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, a Democrat, will be sworn in to fill her final two years in office.