Guest Column | March 19, 2014

WWEMA Window: Why ‘Buy American' May Be Bad For America

By Vanessa Leiby, Executive Director, WWEMA

*NOTE: The views expressed in Water Online guest columns are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions of Water Online, the editorial staff, or VertMarkets, Inc. “Buy American” has sparked particular debate, and we invite commentary on both sides of the issue (see the counter-argument, ‘Why It’s Good For All’). E-mail editor@wateronline.com for guest column opportunities, or simply contribute to the comments section below the article.

“Buy American” is a sound bite that conjures up an image of a Norman Rockwell painting, motherhood, and apple pie. Ask most people on the street, in our state houses, and on Capitol Hill whether “Buy American” is good, and I suspect most peoples’ immediate response would be … “Of course it’s a good thing.” While it is good to promote the purchase of American-made goods, there is another very important side to this issue that is so much more complex and challenging than what can be conveyed in a simple sound bite.

I think most of us understand that we live in a world with a global economy. We get cars from Germany, strawberries from Mexico, and crude oil and natural gas from Canada. We have many, many trading partners around the world, and while we import a lot of different products from many countries, we also want to ensure that our products can be exported to these countries.

But what happens when a country such as the United States decides to “protect” its products and require that they be bought and used in our own country? It prevents our trading partners’ products from being used here in the U.S., and when that happens, our trading partners decide to introduce domestic content preference language into their own laws and regulations, potentially limiting our ability to sell American-made products abroad.    

Another aspect of this discussion is the complexity of the manufacturing process. Recently Congress decided to include American flags on the list of items required to be made in America. “That should be easy,” one might think; but what does this really mean? Even something as relatively straightforward as a flag raises many questions. For example, where was the cotton grown or synthetic fiber made? Where did the dyes and colorings come from? What about the grommets used to string and fly the flag? Is it sufficient that the flag must just be made in a U.S. factory? Do we care that it may be constructed with foreign materials?

Now extend that line of thinking from a flag to a car or a complicated piece of drinking water or wastewater equipment. Is it truly reasonable to expect that all components can possibly be made in the U.S.? And what about U.S. manufacturers that have manufacturing facilities in other countries? Some of the product is made here in the U.S. but maybe a gasket or meter box is made in their Canadian factory. Is this no longer an American-made product? So many questions…

Ultimately, depending on how these questions are answered, there can be real ramifications, even to the point that U.S.-based manufacturers may not be able to sell their products in the U.S.

So enough of the sound bites. Let’s work to understand what the words “Buy American” really mean and whether it is good for America or whether it results in unintended consequences for the U.S. and U.S. manufacturers.

Vanessa Leiby is the executive director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA). Founded in 1908, WWEMA serves as the voice of water and wastewater solution providers who are working together to advance the interests of their individual businesses as well as the water industry as a whole.

Image credit: "Shovel," © 2012 kelly.sikkema, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/