A Big Day for Buy America

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 08 2024 |
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President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to the policy in the State of the Union address on the same day his administration moved to finally end an overly broad waiver of Buy America that has been in place for 40 years.

As he has in previous years, President Biden on Thursday made sure to give Buy America policy a shout-out in his State of the Union address.

“Buy American has been the law of the land since the 1930s. Past administrations, including my predecessor, failed to Buy American. Not anymore,” Biden said. “On my watch, federal projects like helping to build American roads bridges and highways will be made with American products built by American workers creating good-paying American jobs.”

That Biden referenced Buy America in his speech is no surprise; he’s been talking about his commitment to the policy since his presidential campaign. But Biden wasn’t all talk on Thursday, as his administration announced that it is moving to end a misguided waiver of Buy America that has sent taxpayer money overseas for more than four decades.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) officially proposed a rule to end its general waiver of Buy America of manufactured products used in federally funded highway projects, which has been in place since 1983. It is a big step forward on Buy America, as it will ensure taxpayer money is reinvested back into America’s factory workers and manufacturers while sending a strong market signal that will attract further investment.

Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul described the FHWA’s decision to end the waiver as a “massive breakthrough,” noting it puts “an end to an egregious policy mistake put in place more than four decades ago and perpetuated by both Republican and Democratic administrations.” Paul continued:

“For 40 years, the United States threw away the opportunity to maximize the return on taxpayer-funded infrastructure investments with stronger domestic supply chains and more jobs. Instead, this overly broad waiver handed our foreign competitors a huge advantage, sending taxpayer dollars offshore to subsidize polluting factories with substandard working conditions.

“But thanks to the persistence of our champions on Capitol Hill and the collective voice of thousands of Americans who called for an end to the FHWA’s blanket waiver, this damaging policy mistake is on track to being corrected. We know that Buy America works, as similar domestic content requirements on electric vehicle chargers have already driven significant U.S. investment in that industry.

Indeed, nearly 9,000 people wrote to the FHWA during a comment period in 2023 to urge the agency to end the waiver, representing roughly 95% of the total comments received.

Meanwhile, Buy America champions on Capitol Hill like Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) worked to both strengthen Buy America via legislation like the Build America, Buy America Act. After that legislation passed Congress as part of the infrastructure bill, both Senators continued to advocate for Buy America and pressed administration officials to end the 1983 waiver.

And both Senators said reaffirmed their commitment to American workers after FHWA’s announcement on Thursday.

“This is 40 years overdue. For decades, our country allowed taxpayer dollars to go to foreign companies, including in countries like China that cheat Ohio workers out of jobs. Today, after years of fighting to end this waiver, this will finally ensure that American tax dollars support American workers,” Brown said. “All other federal agencies need to take this same step to protect American workers and American taxpayers.”

“This has always been a straightforward idea to me: when we use taxpayer dollars to build things, we better be using American products and supporting American businesses,” Baldwin said. “I have long been pushing the Biden administration to make this change to ensure that when we rebuild our roads, we Buy America, and I am proud to be bringing home this victory for Wisconsin to create good-paying jobs, support our manufacturers, and grow our economy.”

Of course, the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Here at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, we look forward to further examining the fine print and working with the FHWA and others to make sure we get this right. As our own Scott Paul noted, it will be critical to implement policies that “generate strong market signals for U.S. factory investments through the supply chain, including upstream materials and components,” adding that “[l]ongstanding Buy America policies applied to iron and steel must be strengthened, not eroded, through implementation.”

But there’s no doubt that FHWA’s announcement that it is working to finally bring its 40-year Buy America waiver to an end is a big f—ing deal, as the president would say, and another step forward in Biden’s quest to Keep it Made in America.