Federal Agencies Often Abuse Buy American Waivers. Can This Bipartisan Bill Solve the Problem?

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 17 2021 |
There hasn’t been a way to easily track waivers to Buy American. But a bipartisan group of Senators say that a centralized website will bring much needed sunlight to the procurement process. Getty Images

The BuyAmerican.gov Act aims to increase transparency and “ensure federal agencies prioritize the purchase of American-made goods in compliance with existing law.” President Biden put forth a similar plan via executive order.

For decades now, Buy American laws have required the federal government to give preference to American companies and workers when spending taxpayer money.

Buy American is pretty popular among voters, and it makes a ton of sense. When the government spends tax dollars, it should invest that money back into American communities, not send it overseas. Spending tax money locally creates jobs and boosts the economy. It’s a win-win.

Now, sometimes there isn’t an American-made product available, or it is cost prohibitive. In these cases, waivers are available to federal agencies to allow them to bypass Buy American and keep projects on track.

The problem is that federal agencies abuse these waivers, using them far too often than they should. There also are a number of loopholes that have weakened Buy American; a 2018 report from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) found that 13 federal agencies used loopholes to spend more than $92 billion on foreign contracts between 2008 and 2016, for example. One of the reasons why agencies have gotten away with it because there isn’t an easily accessible system to track Buy American waivers.

New bipartisan legislation is aiming to fix this.

The BuyAmerican.gov Act would create a centralized online hub – at BuyAmerican.gov, natch – to shine a spotlight on the waiver process and ensure American manufacturers have the opportunity to compete for federal contract opportunities.

Under the legislation, the website would display information about each requested Buy American waiver, giving U.S. manufacturers the chance to challenge pending waivers sought by federal agencies. It’s also an opportunity to bring more transparency to the procurement process, allowing manufacturers to find contract opportunities they may have otherwise missed.

“American workers and manufacturers are the best in the world,” said Stabenow, one of the cosponsors of the legislation. “This bill will help make sure they are first in line when it comes to government contracts and spending.” 

Other bill sponsors include Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). There’s also support for the effort in the executive branch, as President Biden proposed a similar website in his Buy American executive order.  

“I was pleased to see President Biden agree with me about the need for a website to better identify contracting opportunities American manufacturers.” Portman said. “By improving transparency, the BuyAmerican.gov Act will encourage federal agencies to support American workers and American jobs by faithfully complying with Buy American laws. This is a bipartisan bill that is needed now to help support American jobs.”

Murphy said that he is also pleased to see support for Buy American from the White House, noting that he has urged multiple presidential administrations to strengthen these efforts. Biden’s executive order showed “his commitment to put American manufacturers first.”

“I’m glad to see our efforts gaining more bipartisan traction and am hopeful we can strengthen the supply chain and boost our economy,” Murphy added.

Graham said that the legislation will help streamline the government procurement process and bring “a much-needed system of checks-and-balances to the current waiver process,” which is especially important at a time when there’s bipartisan agreement that more needs to be done to strengthen domestic manufacturing and critical supply chains.

“The pandemic has been a painful wake-up call that we are too reliant on other nations for important manufactured goods,” Graham said.

Brown, a longtime proponent of Buy American, noted that the United States “cannot allow foreign companies to continue to undercut our domestic industries. Without Buy America rules, we are allowing manufacturing to go elsewhere at the expense of taxpayers.”

Brown summed up the bill this way: “It’s simple: American tax dollars should go toward American-made projects that support American jobs. Period.”