Michael Mandel, the chief economist for BusinessWeek, was recently doing some research for a textbook he’s revising when he stumbled upon a surprising entry in the Federal Registry. On March 21, the U.S. Air Force waived the “Buy American” provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for a construction project at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. As workers tried to build a few stimulus-backed housing units, it became apparent that a number of simple domestic items couldn’t be procured from American manufacturers – namely, ceiling fans, shower rods, towel racks, toilet-paper holders, and all manner of screws and fixtures.
According to the registry entry, a contracting official
has determined that the above items of manufactured goods are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality. The domestic nonavailability determination for these products is based on extensive market research and thorough investigation of the domestic manufacturing landscape. This research identified that these products are manufactured almost exclusively in China.
In fiscal year 2009, more than 44,000 waivers of federal “Buy American” provisions were granted, worth nearly $14 billion. On his blog, Mandel writes that the Air Force waiver in particular “certifies the weakness of domestic manufacturing in America,” though he also questions whether all the household items listed are actually unavailable in the U.S., given that, according to him, the American production of nuts and bolts has been climbing in recent years.