Buy American to help build America

Amid all the partisanship and rancor that exists in Congress, members of all political stripes can generally agree on two things: the importance of jobs and that our federal tax dollars should be spent wisely.

“Buy America” laws were created to support these twin goals by ensuring that federal investments in our roads, bridges, public transit systems, railroads and other infrastructure supports American jobs whenever possible. With millions of Americans out of work and in today’s era tight budget constraints, the application of these laws takes on even greater importance if we are to realize the full job-creating potential of our public infrastructure projects.

In just a few months’ time, one such publicly supported infrastructure project is scheduled to be completed with the opening of the $6.3 billion East Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

But instead of steel cast in the Alleghenies or roadbed segments assembled in Alameda, cars and trucks using the bridge will be driving over 43,000 tons of steel imported from China, which supported 3,000 Chinese jobs and was financed by U.S. taxpayers.

Last year, as part of the new surface transportation law (MAP-21), Democrats on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee were successful in closing the loophole that allowed this federally supported project to be broken into multiple contracts to evade Buy America laws. As a result, future highway contracts cannot be given away to our foreign competitors.

Unfortunately, MAP-21 did not go far enough. Provisions that were supported by a bipartisan majority of the House to extend stronger Buy America requirements to transit and rail infrastructure projects were left on the cutting-room floor during the conference process. Gaping loopholes remain that leave billions in taxpayer funds invested in transit, rail, aviation and water infrastructure vulnerable to being sent overseas.

Last week, I again joined my Democratic colleagues on the committee in introducing legislation that would ensure that all taxpayer-funded infrastructure investments support American jobs by closing these loopholes.

The changes in this bill will maximize the job-creation potential of our federal investment. For example, the bill increases domestic content requirements for public transit rolling stock and aviation facilities and equipment, to ensure that these sizable investments, financed by U.S. taxpayers, will be used to create and sustain good-paying jobs in our local communities. A recent study by Northwestern University revealed that stronger Buy America requirements for buses and rolling stock alone stand to support nearly 13,000 additional American jobs.

Critics of Buy America will trot out the familiar refrain that America lacks the capacity or technology to produce our own transportation infrastructure cost effectively and we must instead look overseas. But when it came to the Bay Bridge, no one had the capacity to build the massive modules that were required for completion of the structure, and U.S. taxpayers had to foot the bill for the construction of a new factory in Shanghai for their construction.

That’s an investment that should have been made in the U.S. and could have put our engineers, steel polishers and other manufacturers to work.

Arguments for using potentially cheaper materials for our infrastructure projects also ignore both the economic cost and the moral cost of keeping our workers in the unemployment line while we send tax dollars overseas to support jobs in other countries.

Right now we have a lot of federal transportation and infrastructure dollars in the pipeline and coming down the pike: $50 billion in federal funding authorized in the new surface transportation law is now being obligated. Congress is also expected to consider legislation to provide significant federal investment in rail and water infrastructure.

We need to ensure that these contracts — and these high-skill jobs — are not given away to foreign manufacturers and workers. Giving our tax dollars away to support jobs overseas should be inexcusable in any instance, but is unconscionable when millions of Americans are seeking employment.

Ironically, the new Bay Bridge is scheduled to open on Labor Day, a day when we should be celebrating the contributions of all working Americans.

Instead, we will be cutting a ribbon on a project that cuts American jobs. Let’s not get to Labor Day and read about the next Bay Bridge or the next major transit project that is being built overseas with our tax dollars.

As members of Congress, we have a choice: Demand that federal dollars be expended to rebuild American manufacturing and better the lives of our constituents and our communities, or sit back and watch more American jobs, factories and industries be shipped overseas. We should close these loopholes that violate the spirit of our Buy America laws and harm the American entrepreneurial spirit.

Rahall is ranking member of the  House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.