Another Stimulus-style Mandate

The namesake of the Nick J. Rahall, II Appalachian Transportation Institute* has some explaining to do.

In a little noticed Friday vote, 176 House Democrats and 69 House Republicans** embraced a stimulus-style mandate: a so-called “Buy America” provision.  Although the procedural vote – a motion to instruct conferees – was non-binding, it was intended to send a message to House and Senate negotiators who are currently hammering out the details of our nation’s highway and transit programs behind closed doors and far away from the C-SPAN cameras.

The measure’s sponsor – Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) – said the amendment would “seize the opportunity to create more American jobs and to revive American manufacturing by addressing important loopholes in Buy America laws.”  It sounds nice, but we know “Buy America” mandates sound a whole lot better than they actually work.

Indeed. history demonstrates the failure of such an approach.  Remember, a “Buy America” mandate was included in President Obama’s much-maligned stimulus plan.  On the first anniversary of the stimulus, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote:

 The U.S. Chamber supported passage of this legislation, which provided a needed stimulus to the U.S. economy, but we had grave concerns with the inclusion of the “Buy American” provision in the law. Unfortunately, our concerns with the Buy American provisions have been realized. They are stunting job growth, slowing the initiation of projects, causing mass confusion, and creating an atmosphere of potential retaliation abroad. (emphasis added)

The full report  goes on to highlight the increased costs and added complexity associated with the mandate, concerns echoed by conservative critiques of “Buy America.” As The Heritage Foundation points out, “the highway program has been subject to a number of regulatory burdens” all of which “have added substantially to project costs and/or project delays,” including “Buy America provisions.”

Requiring taxpayer money to be spent on U.S.-made goods, even if foreign-made products are cheaper, is wasteful and will result in fewer projects started and completed.  Rather than look for ways to spend money more efficiently (see Transportation Empowerment Act), 245 U.S. Representatives voted to make transportation projects more expensive.

If these lawmakers really care about building and maintaining our roads, bridges and trains, they have some explaining to do.

* Created through a $12 million “grant” secured by Congressman Rahall in the 1998 transportation bill, the Nick J. Rahall, II Appalachian Transportation Institute (RTI) has been sustained by numerous earmarks.  And in 2011, 44% of RTI’s budget came from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). 

** The 69 Republicans who voted for the motion hold an average Heritage Action score of 58%, which is below the House Republican average of 66% but still well above House Democrat average of 16%.

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