Guest column/Common sense needed when it comes to buying American

Last summer, in the midst of election season, political pollsters from North Star Opinion Research and the Mellman Group rang the homes of voters across America to ask questions about factory jobs, “Made in America,” and the state of our economy. One of the questions asked was:

Do you support requirements that all taxpayer-funded construction and manufacturing use American-made goods whenever possible?

That’s a pretty specific question and, the answer was pretty clear-cut: Yes, we do. In fact, 87 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Independents, and 91 percent of Democrats agreed that these “Buy America” requirements are a good idea.

Considering the margins of those results, you could say that Buy America preferences have broad bipartisan support. Or that a robust majority of taxpayers think these policies make sense.

Along these lines, West Virginia U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-Beckley, recently introduced the ‘Invest in American Jobs Act.’ If the federal government wants to spend our money on material for infrastructure projects, Rahall argues, it should first seek to purchase material made by American workers. And the logic for this is pretty straightforward: Such a preference stimulates the larger economy, keeps our tax dollars in our communities and creates jobs at home by creating demand.

We’ve had such preferences in place since the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, when they were used to spur job creation amidst mass unemployment. In the 1940s, we applied them again to defense spending in order to support national security during war time. Ronald Reagan signed into law Buy America preferences for federal transit projects during his presidency. And we enacted them again in 2009 to wring the maximum possible domestic impact out of every stimulus dollar spent on infrastructure projects.

These preferences also include common-sense waivers to address market limitations. If, for example, domestic content is prohibitively expensive, or if there’s not enough of it available, the government can purchase overseas.

But when American companies get a first shot at procurement, Washington rarely needs to shop elsewhere. The Federal Transit Administration granted only three such waivers for all projects in 2012, showing there are plenty of domestic producers who are more than capable of furnishing components for FTA projects, and at a competitive price.

And then there’s job creation. A study by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that maximizing domestic content in our infrastructure investment could generate 33 percent more manufacturing jobs.

So why not broaden and tighten these rules to address loopholes and exemptions?

As our economy continues to underperform and the unemployment rate remains high, we need to take every opportunity to encourage businesses that don’t take jobs offshore.

We certainly shouldn’t be rewarding those that move overseas with federal contracts.

That’s why Buy America is common sense. These preferences are integral to what should be a larger national manufacturing strategy that ultimately encourages economic growth stateside. They are a vehicle by which companies that help our economy grow can expand their capacity to do business, and ultimately take that capacity into ventures in international markets.

But good business starts at home.

This is a chance to foster American industry. So let’s build bridges, fix roads and railways, and create jobs in the process.

How? Stick to an easy rule-of-thumb: Buy American. When we rebuild our infrastructure, American tax dollars should go to American companies supporting American workers. It’s as simple as that.

(Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.)