No Surprise: Trump’s “Buy American” Policy Is a Sham

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

An audience member holds up a sign reading "Buy American Hire American" at a rally for President Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Two years ago, Donald Trump announced his administration would “follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.” At most of the de facto campaign rallies he’s held since his inauguration, “Buy American” has been a reliable applause line.

But Trump’s talks and tweets have not been backed up by any Trump policies that strengthen Buy American policies regarding the use of American-made goods and materials in projects paid for with taxpayer funds.

In an age of polarization, the issue stands out for its strong bipartisan appeal. Americans across the ideological spectrum understand that many bridges, roads, tunnels, and drinking water systems have long since exceeded their life spans. An Alliance for American Manufacturing “National Survey on Infrastructure and Buy America Policies” released earlier this month found that 81 percent of 1,200 likely 2020 voters wanted the president and Congress to focus on repairing transportation and water networks and other critical infrastructure, a higher percentage than for any other issue. Fully 80 percent also supported laws that would require infrastructure projects built with public funds to be constructed with American-made materials and goods.

Substantial majorities also favored requiring privately funded projects to do the same (74 percent) and doing away with lowest-bidder contracting on taxpayer-funded projects that award projects to foreign firms (76 percent). The support for domestic-preference policies holds steady across the lines of party, age, gender, education, race, and rural and urban locales.

But Trump’s executive orders haven’t really leveled the playing field. His 2017 “Buy American, Hire American” executive order included provisions to “maximize” the use of American goods and materials in federally funded projects. His second executive order, signed earlier this year, details preferences for specific domestic materials, goods, and products in a wide array of infrastructure and public-works projects, but merely seeks to “encourage” infrastructure project recipients “to use, to the greatest extent practicable, iron and aluminum as well as steel, cement, and other manufactured products produced in the United States in every contract, subcontract, purchase order, or sub‑award.”

The operative words in these orders are weasel words: “maximize,” “encourage,” and “to the greatest extent practicable.” “In terms of legislative policy and regulatory impact, there was none whatsoever,” says Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “The practical effect of what the administration has done is virtually nothing.” Moreover, certain major projects have secured waivers from these orders—among them, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Gordie Howe International Bridge spanning Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Despite Trump’s indifference to domestic production, some bipartisan alliances have sprung up in Congress to increase the purchase and use of American-made infrastructure materials.

Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have co-sponsored a bill that would create a BuyAmerican.gov website that might shame companies by enabling users to track Buy American waiver requests. It would also alert small domestic producers to upcoming public-infrastructure projects. Additionally, Brown and Portman want to see Trump back a bill (which they introduced in 2017) that would require that all federally funded infrastructure and public-works projects be built with American iron and steel.

But there has been little productive White House engagement with Capitol Hill on domestic content legislation.Congress could force Trump’s hand by passing a bipartisan infrastructure investment package with stronger Buy America provisions, presumably brimming with dollars for the big, beautiful infrastructure proposals that the president enjoys campaigning on. But Mitch McConnell is hardly likely to present Trump with a fait accompli unless Trump has agreed to it first.

Trump already has the power to strengthen domestic content provisions no matter what Congress does. His Federal Trade Commission has the authority to sanction companies that flout domestic content goals. Recently, however, the president’s three Republican FTC appointees declined to sanction Patriot Pucks, a manufacturer of hockey pucks that falsely claimed that Chinese-made pucks were “all or virtually all” made in America. They also decided not to sanction Sandpiper and PiperGear, two recreational and outdoor equipment companies that misrepresented their foreign-made products as American-made.

Instead, these companies escaped with no-fault settlements. It was left to Rohit Chopra, one of the commission’s Democratic appointees to note, “Given troubling trends in today’s economy, I intend to make a motion to pursue a Made in USA rule that would allow the Commission to seek meaningful penalties against those [firms] that harm law-abiding companies that make goods in America.”

Despite his appointees’ and his own resistance to really requiring domestic production, Trump has become the face of “Buy America:” 53 percent of the voters in the AAM survey had heard Trump talk about “Buy America;” fewer voters had heard either congressional Democrats or Republicans talk about the issue. But if voters want a real “Buy America” policy, they’ll need Congress to stop dithering and come up with one.

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