WASHINGTON -- To John Garamendi, the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge set to open in September is a symbol of failed U.S. trade policy: a $6.3 billion project that used 43,000 tons of Chinese steel and produced thousands of jobs overseas.
With 70,000 U.S. bridges needing repairs, the Democratic representative from California wants Congress to pass more “Buy America” requirements, insisting that public works projects use American-made materials to create more manufacturing jobs – even if foreign firms offer lower bids.
“The American workers have been totally screwed year in and year out by the free-trade negotiations and the compacts that have been reached – and it’s got to end,” he said.
Opponents say that’s a surefire way to increase costs for U.S. taxpayers.
“You’re going to simply be less efficient – you’re going to buy more expensive products than you would if you could buy foreign products,” said Dan O’Flaherty, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, a business lobby that promotes global trade.
Despite the criticism, the idea is growing in popularity: 20 Buy America bills popped up in statehouses this year, a fourfold increase from last year.
Most of the bills died in committees, but critics fear that such a big spike could complicate the work of U.S. negotiators as they prepare to formally open the first round of new trade talks with the European Union on Monday.
The issue irked the European Union in 2009, when Congress included Buy America requirements in a bill to stimulate the economy. With the issue back on the table, some fear that U.S. negotiators may find themselves on the defensive, making it harder for them to press for increased access to the vast European markets.
“You should not be handing the people we’re negotiating with an ace in the bargaining,” said O’Flaherty.
In the last two years alone, three states – Colorado, Maryland and Ohio – have passed Buy America laws requiring the use of U.S. manufactured goods in public works projects, O’Flaherty said. He expects another flurry of bill introductions in 2014.
In Nebraska, state lawmakers this year even debated a “Buy Nebraska” law, aimed at giving an edge to state businesses over out-of-state competition for any state contracts.
“You have to wonder what they were thinking, because that means wheat, basically,” said O’Flaherty.
With so much public anger over trade deals, Garamendi is confident that the campaign to pass Buy America legislation is a winner for Democrats and Republicans alike.
“I’m telling you: This is a big, big political issue,” Garamendi said. “You want to go out and get the tea party to cheer for you as a Democrat? Just go say, ‘We’re going to make it in America. We’re going to spend your taxpayer money on American-made equipment and supplies.’”
Eric Shimp, a former U.S. trade negotiator who’s now a policy adviser on global trade with Alston & Bird, a Washington law firm, said the increase in Buy America bills reflects the growing pressure on officials to make sure that local tax money is used to support local jobs.
But he said “it’s a bit overwrought” to suggest that the trend could undermine upcoming trade talks.