Why the US needs a federal manufacturing strategy
You can’t be a great country if you don’t make things.
If you look throughout our nation’s history, innovation and entrepreneurship is what drives our growth and opportunity. Whether it was the invention of the assembly line to mass produce vehicles and goods — or the invention of the lightbulb or the telephone — we are strongest when our manufacturing base is strong.
However, this pandemic shined an even greater light on a challenge that threatens to undermine our global competitiveness: we have no federal manufacturing strategy.
In 2019 — months before the pandemic gripped our country — I released the results of an investigation into the costs of prescription drugs. One of my takeaways: That our overreliance on prescription drugs precursors from foreign countries was a national security risk — and that in the event of a pandemic, our supply chain was not equipped to handle a surge in demand for medical supplies and equipment.
And sure enough, we did not.
We need a better approach — and it’s something manufacturers have called on repeatedly.
From defense contractors to parts for automotive suppliers — I’ve met with hundreds of manufacturers across my state. They make everything from components for the SLS rocket that will carry some of the first humans to Mars — to the next generation of self-driving vehicles — along with innovative medical devices and commercially available packaged foods.
To help take those advances to the next step and support those efforts on a federal level, I’m proposing a comprehensive revamp of federal manufacturing strategy that involves three key objectives.
One component is establishing a National Institute of Manufacturing, modeled off the National Institutes of Health, which would house our national manufacturing programs under one roof. This is something that I’ve called for before.
This single tent for manufacturing programs within the Department of Commerce would boost coordination, reduce overlapping efforts, improve efficiency, and strengthen government’s ability to respond to evolving national needs.
Right now, we have over 50 federal programs to support manufacturing across 11 federal agencies. These are — by and large — good programs. They help our small- and medium-sized manufacturers compete with larger, global manufacturers. They help ensure our nation does not fall behind our competitors in research and development and technological advancements.
Unfortunately, these programs do not always work in concert with each other. We cannot let bureaucracy and disjointed programs stifle innovation. We cannot allow government to impede advances in manufacturing. This red tape makes it difficult for manufacturers to navigate through the federal government when seeking assistance.
Manufacturers should be able to seamlessly take advantage of federal support on-hand to help them grow, compete globally, innovate and succeed. That’s why I’m proposing that manufacturing.gov be revamped to be a one-stop shop for all federal manufacturing resources. It would require utilizing machine learning and significant technological advances that have been made to better identify the exact needs that manufacturers have when they visit this site.
It is also critical that the private sector play a pivotal role in crafting manufacturing strategy.
That’s why — the third component of my proposal — is codifying into law the National Manufacturing Advisory Council, which has only met intermittently in recent years. This group — which would be comprised of business, labor, economic and academic leaders — would report to top leaders in our federal government on how to not only craft strategy, but be nimble and adjust according to changes in our economy.
Our nation has always adapted in response to major crises. After 9/11, we established the Department of Homeland Security. In response to the 1973 oil crisis, we established the Department of Energy. Likewise, in response to this pandemic, we must strengthen and streamline our manufacturing policy.
Today, we stand at a critical crossroad. Our future depends on the road we take. The world is rapidly changing — technology is developing exponentially — and we only have a short time to take action and secure our manufacturing mantle. Our global competitors recognize this and are taking aggressive action. China, for example, has rapidly expanded its electric battery industry — which will be vital for future innovations. And if current trends continue, the United States will only have 10 electric battery facilities by 2030. China? 140.
We all need to come together — Republicans and Democrats alike — to seize this moment. We have an opportunity to secure our position as a world leader in advanced manufacturing, set the global standard for the next generation of innovation — and create great jobs for Americans who have manufacturing in their blood. But we need an all-hands-on-deck approach that’s coordinated.
My proposal will give our nation’s manufacturing programs a higher profile — and finally prioritize and recognize manufacturing as the beating heart of our nation’s economy.
Peters chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.