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Congress Passes Buy America in Stimulus

On votes of 246-183 in the House and 60-38 in the Senate, Congress passed the biggest economic stimulus package of all time, which included Buy America provisions. The Washington Post has a truly touching story about how fair-trade champion Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) flew from his mother's memorial service to cast the deciding vote. Our hearts and prayers go out to Sen. Brown and his family.

Here's the final version of the language:

    Sec. 1605. Use of American Iron, Steel, and Manufactured Goods. (a) None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for a project for the construction, alteration, maintenance, or repair of a public building or public work unless all of the iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in the project are produced in the United States.

    (b) Subsection (a) shall not apply in any case or category of cases in which the head of the Federal department or agency involved finds that--

    (1) applying subsection (a) would be inconsistent with the public interest;

    (2) iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality; or

    (3) inclusion of iron, steel, and manufactured goods produced in the United States will increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.

    (c) If the head of a Federal department or agency determines that it is necessary to waive the application of subsection (a) based on a finding under subsection (b), the head of the department or agency shall publish in the Federal Register a detailed written justification as to why the provision is being waived.

    (d) This section shall be applied in a manner consistent with United States obligations under international agreements.

The conferees' report made the following note regarding Buy America provisions:

Section 1605 provides for the use of American iron, steel and manufactured goods, except in certain instances. Section 1605(d) is not intended to repeal by implication the President's authority under Title III of the Trade Agreements Act of 1979. The conferees anticipate that the Administration will rely on the authority under 19 U.S.C. 2511(b) to the extent necessary to comply with U.S. obligations under the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement and under U.S. free trade agreements and so that section 1605 will not apply to least developed countries to the same extent that it does not apply to the parties to those international agreements. The conferees also note that waiver authority under section 2511(b)(2) has not been used.


It seems that this last sentence refers to the president's ability to waive Buy America requirements for countries that aren't parties to procurement agreements with the U.S. (i.e. Brazil, India, China, for starters.) It's actually fairly troubling that the president has so much discretion in these matters in the first place. The history of this power is that Congress, in 1979 on a fast-tracked vote, decided to waive much of its authority over procurement, handing it to the president, who could then waive the requirements to comply with flawed trade deals. Clearly, this whole system - born as it was of a kind of double delegation of legislative powers - needs a major rethink.

In other news, our colleagues Terry Stewart and Elizabeth Drake put out a useful paper debunking some of the myths surrounding Buy America perpetrated by corporate-backed think-tanks. It's chock full of useful material. Here is something I did not know:

Myth #5: Insisting on the use of domestic goods will reduce the effectiveness of the recovery plan by imposing unreasonable requirements where U.S. goods are unavailable or prohibitively expensive.33

The Facts: This assertion ignores the language of the recovery bills and U.S. experience applying similar provisions in the past. First, both the House and Senate versions of the Act allow domestic sourcing requirements to be waived where the relevant goods “are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality.”34 This waiver provision is also included in the Buy American Act,35 and data relied upon by Hufbauer and Schott indicate that such non-availability waivers were necessary to permit foreign sourcing for only 0.29 percent of all federal contract dollars spent in 2007.36

Moreover, the House and Senate bills permit domestic sourcing requirements to be waived where their application would increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.37 The 25 percent threshold reflects cost competitiveness standards that currently apply in Buy America requirements attached to federal highway and mass transit funds.38 Similar cost waivers are available for direct federal contracting under the Buy American Act, though they have been set at different levels administratively.39 Such cost waivers were needed to justify 0.20 percent of the federal government’s spending on foreign manufactures for domestic use in 2007 – a mere 0.01 percent of all federal contracting dollars spent.40

Clearly, unavailability and cost differences present obstacles to domestic purchasing in only a tiny portion of contracts, and, where such issues do arise, procurement officials are able to use their waiver authority to address them. The same will be true under the economic recovery plan.
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Comments

Pete Murphy

No one has been more adamant than I about the need to eliminate our trade deficit. However, a strict "buy American" provision is a clumsy way to go about it. We enjoy a very beneficial trade relationship with many countries (including surpluses in manufactured goods), and it would be senseless to anger them by shutting them out. When it comes to addressing the real root cause of our trade deficit - the disparity in population density between us and nations like China, Japan, Germany, Korea and others, we're going to need allies on our side - nations like Canada, Australia and many others.

It would be much better if the administration, in tandem with the stimulus package, undertook a complete overhaul of trade policy, beginning with putting the WTO on notice of our plans to restore a balance of trade.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Steve Hartnell

I cant believe the prevailing foolishness in America that protecting our manufacturing is somehow wrong. Most of our trading partners protect their manufacturers. Third world poverty stricken countries manufacture nothing. Countries like China have had as high as 20% growth in recent years because of Manufacturing(under a veil of government protection). I own a Real manufacturing company.That means we start with an ingot to produce a finished product.We just lost an order for 8000 units per year over five years to China.The retailer,A two man shop will import the order from China and sell it to the one customer end user. Had we gotten the order we would have had to hire 10 people minimum plus increased purchases to our suppliers would have caused at least 5 more hires.My company pays $12 to $15 per hr plus health care for our employees.Supporting so called "free trade" is denying Americans these job opportunities. Have we forgotten that creating wealth is absolutely tied bringing something out of the ground, using skilled labor to turn it into a useable product and then selling it for more than the sum of it's costs. China hasn't

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