House Panel Moves to Expand Buy America to FEMA

By Matt Heller
Oct 27 2021 |
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But more work needs to be done.

For weeks now, it seems like all the news coming from Capitol Hill has focused on negotiations between Democratic leaders over the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework and the Budget Reconciliation Bill. But the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was hard at work on Wednesday to markup some bills with major implications for Buy America preferences.

There was a lot of debate over the course of the day — including a very robust and heated exchange over vaccine mandates for airline employees — but one bill about federal emergency management caught our eye.

Specifically, the committee considered the RESILIENT America Act, which is designed to mitigate risks and bolster resistance when it comes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to respond to a disaster. Among other provisions, the bill would double funding for FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation program and expand the reach of the post-disaster Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to protect utilities from extreme weather events.

And, through an amendment passed by voice vote without objections, the bill would extend Buy America preferences to FEMA for the first-time ever. Buy America gives American manufacturers the first shot at taxpayer-funded contracts, a commonsense idea that ensures our tax dollars are reinvested into American workers and communities.

“FEMA is not currently subject to Buy American provisions, which is a big oversight,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who sponsored the amendment. “This amendment fixes that by requiring FEMA to use American-produced steel and iron, with some exceptions.”

The bill was bipartisan, with sponsors including both the leading Democrat and Republican on the committee, DeFazio and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.).

“The way we lower costs of future disasters is by investing upfront in mitigation,” Graves remarked. “The path to success for this committee is through bipartisanship, and this bill is a good example of both sides coming together.”

There’s still work to do, however. While we appreciate the bipartisanship of the effort, the specific bill language needs to be strengthened.

As written, the legislation would delay the rules extending Buy America to FEMA by 18 months — a whole year and a half (!!!) — which will not only let FEMA continue to purchase foreign-made steel, but also runs the risk of watering down application.

That’s a big concern because FEMA officials in the past have waived domestic preferences, arguing that buying foreign-made products gives them flexibility in an emergency. However, buying cheaply-made foreign imports has consequences.

During Hurricane Katrina, for example, some of the fabricated trailers used by FEMA included imported parts made with formaldehyde and were toxic for people sheltering in them. Had FEMA benefitted from a robust American-made supply chain for the trailers, things may have turned out differently.

In order for this bill to be as effective as possible, policymakers need to focus on ensuring that not only will FEMA be required to buy American ASAP, but also that FEMA will work to develop strong domestic supply chains for those goods. This will mean that in an emergency, FEMA has ample places to turn to purchase what they need to address it. Ensuring that the language ultimately adopted is as robust as possible will help to support both American producers and workers, by giving them the confidence that a market for their goods will exist.

It also makes logical sense. Why would we want to depend on far-flung supply chains around the world in an emergency when we could simply turn to our own backyard? In an emergency, time is of the essence, and Buy America will help us mitigate these emergencies expeditiously.

And if the past two years has taught us anything, it’s that relying on imports in a crisis can have terrible consequences.

So, to sum things up: There’s good news and bad news.

Good news: Buy America rules may finally be applied to FEMA, a long overdue move that will be of great benefit to American manufacturers AND will help the United States become better prepared to respond to future crises.

Bad news: An 18-month delay will drag things out, and could mean that the ultimate rules are watered down.

Still, there’s a lot of potential here. It’s time for Buy America to apply to FEMA so our tax dollars are used to build supply chains we can rely upon to keep us safe in an emergency.