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Op-Ed: What’s Going on With the Government’s Made in USA Sneaker Rebellion?

One can only wonder if the facts behind the recent sneaker rebellion and, in fact, the whole Made in USA phenomenon, are starting to parody the fictional government that so revered Chauncey Gardiner in the 1979 Movie, “Being There.”

Except for a few superstars in our Congress, many have ignored the facts surrounding our government’s deliberate or inadvertent participation in the demise of our U.S. manufacturing base.

Hats off to Boston-based footwear supplier New Balance, who took great risk and brought the issue front and center to the American public. New Balance operates several footwear factories in the U.S. and—fearing loss of domestic business with recent trade developments—they wanted a chance to bid on U.S. government sneaker contracts, that are offered under the Berry Amendment (legislation that requires U.S. uniforms to be Made in the U.S.). Technically, this should have been easy, but it wasn’t.

New Balance’s essential question: if it’s mandatory for government-issued uniforms be made in the U.S., then why is the Department of Defense (DOD) handing out vouchers for sneakers?

This is interesting concept to explain, but I’ll try by personalizing it. When I did my stint as a soldier, basic training kicked off with a haircut and a visit to the uniform depot. My drill sergeant marched me over to the supply building and said, “Alphabet,” (he was unable to pronounce my last name) “Here’s your pants, your shirt, your jacket, your boots, your socks, and your hat,” (all of which were made in America).

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The problem for New Balance is that, today, my drill sergeant would have to add: “Alphabet, for your athletic shoes, since we can’t find a proper sneaker, take this $80 voucher over to the PX and buy a pair of sneakers, that are made in China or Vietnam.”

So much for strict compliance with the Berry Amendment.

The DOD is essentially skirting federal law. It was important that New Balance had the courage to bring this to the surface, but, honestly, “Sneakergate” is only the tip of the Made in U.S. iceberg. There are other issues that also interfere with proper execution of Berry, including the government offering contracts to a division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (called UNICOR) and having that as competition for U.S. government contractors. Keeping prisoners busy might seem logical, but only if they were paid at the same rate as the contractors’ taxpaying employees and didn’t receive any preference in the bidding process.

Since the pay scale is beyond dramatically different, one can easily say the competition is unfair. After all, U.S. contractors need to use Berry as a base to support their domestic factories while they try to resurrect their position in the world economy. It’s bad enough when you have to compete against the factory in the next town, but almost impossible when you have to compete against a prison!

Just last October President Obama said, “If we can get this (trade) agreement to my desk, then we can help our businesses sell more Made in America goods and services around the world, and we can help more American workers compete and win.”

If the Berry Amendment is good for the goose, then it should be good for the gander too. DOD should not be able to skirt the issue with sneakers or any other items. The Federal Government needs to support our domestic contractors, and not compete with them by utilizing prison labor or granting vouchers to circumvent Berry requirements.

Laws that pass through Congress are supposed to apply to everyone. It’s hard to find a statute that says the federal government has the right to enforce only the regulations they choose.

This is just nuts. Chauncey Gardiner would agree.


Helfenbein is president & CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association and is a strong advocate for a robust U.S. trade agenda and for “Made in USA.” He lectures frequently on the subjects of politics and international trade. Follow him on Twitter @rhelfen