The Connecticut politics of ‘Buy American’

U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy’s advocacy for a stronger “Buy American Act” bolstered his difficult 2010 re-election and is a centerpiece of his Senate campaign in 2012. It has produced glowing testimonials from industrial constituents, but not a single change in U.S. law.

While Murphy can point to no Buy American legislation passed during his six years in Congress, his work on the issue continues to draw politically useful admirers: a metal company in Torrington credits his office with making introductions that might soon yield a U.S. Army contract.

“I’ve seen a lot of politicians,” said Jamie Gregg, who employs 33 as owner of Colonial Bronze. “Very few have actually taken an active step to do something that is meaningful for a company my size.”

Testimonials like that are gold during a campaign, and Murphy has used them well during his three terms as a Democrat representing the 5th Congressional District, by most measures the least Democratic district in a blue state.

In 2010, a bad year for Democrats in swing districts, Murphy blunted GOP efforts to portray him as too liberal for the district by emphasizing a “Buy American” bill he introduced earlier in the year. In June, with the difficult campaign under way, he co-founded a bipartisan caucus to promote Buy American.

Now, as the favorite to win the Aug. 14 primary for U.S. Senate, Murphy’s record on Buy American already is coming under close scrutiny from the campaign of Linda McMahon, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.

Unlike 2010, when Murphy was able to outspend his opponent by more than a 2-1 ratio, Murphy is the financial underdog, still unknown to many voters and vulnerable to being defined by McMahon.

In outreach to the media and, according to the Murphy campaign, in polling calls to Connecticut voters, McMahon is trying to build a case that “Buy American” is emblematic of Murphy’s career and candidacy: a triumph of public-relations over policy.

“From all appearances, it looks like a bunch of fluff,” said Tim Murtaugh, communication director for the McMahon campaign.

McMahon faces her own primary from former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, but he trails badly in public polling and lacks the resources for a major advertising push over the primary campaign’s final days. The McMahon campaign already is targeting Murphy with a television commercial that says he has no jobs plan.

“Murphy’s our opponent,” said Corry Bliss, McMahon’s campaign manager.

Murphy returns the favor, looking past Susan Bysiewicz in the last Democratic debate to dismiss McMahon’s heavily promoted jobs plan as old ideas in new packaging that reflect the work of a consultant, not McMahon’s ideas.

Bysiewicz and Shays both say that Buy American is no substitute for a stronger economy.

Murphy is on the air with a commercial touting his Buy American efforts, featuring testimonials from two business owners about Murphy’s work. The ad’s tag line: “He listens and gets things done.”

Nothing in law

But Murphy acknowledges that while he can point to measures that have passed the House, none have become law. It has not stopped him from publiclizing victories that always fall short of final passage.

In one case that McMahon is testing as a campaign theme, Murphy trumpeted the passage of one of his Buy American amendments in the House version of massive defense authorization bill. Not mentioned in Murphy’s press release or a video posted on YouTube is that he voted against the bill.

“It’s lovely for Chris Murphy to talk about this. But it hasn’t become law, and he has voted against it,” Murtaugh said. “For right now, he can brag about it all he wants, but it is window dressing.”

Murphy joined two other Connecticut Democrats, Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Jim Himes, and most other New England Democrats in voting May 18, 2012, against the Defense Authorization Act.

Depending on one’s outlook, the bill was a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The other two Democrats from Connecticut, Reps. John B. Larson and Joe Courtney, voted yes, if with open reluctance in Larson’s case. He expressed reservations about elements of the bill, but he was happy it included a measure he drafted to provide health coverage to military dependents with autism.

In Courtney’s case, the bill provided $4.9 billion for Virginia-class submarines, ensuring the construction of two subs a year, crucial to a district that is home to the Electric Boat shipyard and the Navy’s submarine base in Groton.

Amend, then oppose

Murphy said there is nothing unusual or untoward about working to amend a bill, then ultimately voting against it.

“When you’re in a House of Representatives controlled by right-wing Republicans, you spend your time fighting to make very bad bills better,” Murphy said.

The Murphy amendment included in the authorization bill would allow the government to measure the jobs created by its contracting — and to consider that information as part of its procurement process.

“This is a big day for Buy American reform,” Murphy said in a press release under the headline, “Murphy Passes Key Buy American Measure Through House.”

Murtaugh questioned how Murphy could claim he “passes” the measure when he voted against the bill.

Murphy said he could not vote for the amended authorization act because it continued what he called “an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan,” something he cannot support.

“It’s the sort of question you’re always faced with on big, complicated pieces of information,” Murphy said. “There are bills I voted for and opposed certain provisions.”

Defend and explain

Murphy said every legislator is subject to attack over votes cast.

“I am going to have to defend and explain a lot of votes in this campaign,” Murphy said. “I’m proud of the fact I’ve been in the arena, trying to do my best for the middle class and fiscal responsibility while others, like Linda McMahon, who have been sitting on the outside making billions for themselves, may find it easier to criticize.”

Murphy is not the first to embrace the Buy American Act, which was signed into law in 1933 as Herbert Hoover was about to exit the White House.

But he has been outspoken in pointing out the law’s shortcomings, especially as companies like Colonial Bronze, which manufactures cabinet hardware, saw the market flooded with cheaper fittings made in China.

Gregg, the grandson of the company’s founder, says Colonial Bronze may be the last of its kind in the U.S. His company has shrunk from 77 employees who regularly were offered overtime to 33 who now are on a reduced schedule of 35 hours.

The 5th District once was a national center of metal-working companies, ranging from the ball-bearing industry that once dominated New Britain to the brass mills of Waterbury. Buy American was a natural issue for Murphy.

While the law dates back to Hoover, the Pentagon did not systematically track its foreign purchases until pressed by Congress in 2004, two years before Murphy’s election.

Detailed data has been available since 2008, when the Pentagon reported spending $18 billion on foreign manufactured goods through waivers to the Buy American Act. In fiscal 2011, the foreign purchases totaled $12. 4 billion, with $10 billion of the products exempt because they were to be used overseas.


A report issued last year.

Murphy, who released a report by his congressional office last May saying the waivers are too easily granted, suggests that congressional pressure may have contributed to few waivers being granted. The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment on why the waivers have dropped.

In fiscal 2011, about $630 million was spent on products supposedly unavailable in the U.S., a source of friction for some American manufacturers, like Gregg. It was in 2011 when Gregg says he got a phone call from Mark Ritacco, a Murphy staffer assigned to the “Buy American Caucus” formed the previous year.

“Do you guys make towel bars?” Ritacco asked.

“Of course, we do,” Gregg said.

Gregg said Ritacco told him that the U.S. Air Force had obtained a Buy American Act waiver to purchase towel bars for a base in Alaska on the grounds the product no longer was manufactured in the U.S.

“We complained about the waiver, and how easily they are granted,” Gregg said.

Murphy protested, but Gregg said the damage already was done.

“It doesn’t have a happy ending,” Gregg said.  “I’d love to tell you we’ve gotten jobs [as a result]. At least we have a champion who is fighting for us.”

Gregg said Murphy’s office will deserve some credit if Colonial Bronze succeeds on a more modern business line: using a copper alloy that looks like stainless steel to make medical and hospital equipment.

The alloy is naturally hostile to microbes, naturally killing them within hours — a property that makes it ideal for hospitals, where infections are a major problem. It was through his work with Murphy’s staff that he learned the Army was seeking bids to outfit a new hospital in Fort Riley, Kansas.

Colonial uses the material for countertops and over-the-bed tables used by patients.

Gregg said the Army is interested.