The "buy America" provision in the misnamed stimulus bill was supposed to protect jobs in the U.S. Alas, by encouraging foreign protectionism, the measure is likely to end up destroying American jobs.
Indeed, the provision has all the earmarks of a grand political fiasco. Reports the Financial Times:
Confusion reins. For fear of missing out on contracts, many companies are demanding that all their suppliers are Buy American-compliant regardless of any exemptions.
“Those companies that can comply are of course thrilled and are trumpeting that in their marketing. Those that cannot are in agony and are losing business and cutting workers,” says David Ralston, a government procurement lawyer at Foley & Lardner. “The many companies that find themselves in the gray areas are calling their lawyers.”
Canada’s government has been an early and vocal lobbyist against the measures, sending officials to Washington to warn that a trade war is brewing. Canadian municipalities threatened to attach “do not Buy American” provisions to their own public projects after manufacturers were cut out of US stimulus projects, but have agreed to hold off while the national government tries to resolve the problem.
Canada wants to broker a bilateral trade agreement on government contracts which would extend all the way down to the level of local authority. The US trade representative says it is open to the idea.
While this would quieten the Canadians, it could spark cries of protest from the US’s other trading partners. The British ambassador has given several speeches in recent weeks chastising the US over Buy American and the way it is being implemented. The Europeans are watching closely. But could the US write bilateral deals with them all? Buy American’s supporters in Congress would surely kick back.
The Chamber of Commerce is proposing a compromise. It has called on the administration to tell municipalities to act as if they were signatories to the federal government’s agreements. “I think there is enough flexibility for OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to make that change. I don’t have a crystal ball but for multiple reasons it would make sense for them to do it,” says Chris Braddock, the Chamber’s procurement expert.
On Monday all groups with a stake in the debate submitted their written comments to the OMB, the White House department handling the stimulus. The administration must now write the final rules on how to implement Buy American.
The U.S. has gained enormously from the expansion of trade in recent years. We all will lose if Washington now encourages a global retreat from free markets.