It's that time of year again. House Democrats convened a press conference last week introducing legislation to expand the "Buy America" requirements for infrastructure investments. In short, the lawmakers want to boost the American raw materials and manufactured components that are required to go into major road, bridge, and transit projects.
The legislation has no Republican support and is unlikely to go anywhere, but it's worth looking at the summary of the proposal to see where Democrats think the current system falls short. In addition, the Transportation Department's overview of the law gives us a textbook example of balancing competing needs--protecting the country's dwindling manufacturing capacity without making it impossible for the private sector to invest in big projects. Legislate, but do no harm.
The Transportation Secretary now has the authority to waive Buy America provisions for almost any reason--if it's against the public interest, the raw materials aren't available, or the materials are simply too expensive. Democrats want to make it harder for him to do so, and they want the Federal Highway Administration to review whether old waivers are still warranted.
The Democratic Buy America proposal also would gradually increase the requisite American-made percentage of transit-related components from its current 60 percent level to 100 percent. And why not? The original numbers in current law are simply a product of legislative haggling.
This is not a new debate in Washington, but it's worth exploring the origin of the law. What is the purpose of Buy America? Is it necessary? How does it affect private-sector investments in infrastructure? How does it affect employment in the transportation industry? In its current form, is it doing what it was intended to do? Would it be more or less effective with the changes suggested by House Democrats?