David Michael Miller
Going back to her days as a Wisconsin Assembly member from the Madison area, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been known for her willingness to look for bipartisan solutions. As a congresswoman, Baldwin and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican, jointly won an award from a technology association for their efforts to support a strong federal patent association.
In this same spirit, Baldwin introduced the “Made in America Water Infrastructure Act,” which requires that 100 percent American-made iron and steel is used in water infrastructure projects funded by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, created to help ensure safe drinking water in America.
It’s a stance that’s hugely popular with American voters. One poll found 74 percent say federal projects should be built with American-made products. And it was hugely popular with senators: The proposal was added to the Water Resources Development Act that passed in September on a 95-3 vote.
The House, however, didn’t act on the bill before the election and then, when it was taken up in November, House Speaker Paul Ryan got cold feet. That seemed strange given that incoming Republican president Donald Trump was at the time doing a victory tour to cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati, where he was espousing the philosophy behind Baldwin’s bill. “My administration will follow two simple rules,” he declared. “Buy American and hire Americans, right? We’re going to do it.”
When it comes to the Washington swamp that candidate Trump promised to drain, almost no one employs more of its shadowy denizens than Squire Patton Boggs. Ranked as one of the 30 largest law firms in the world and the third-largest lobbying firm in America, it lobbied for more than 100 clients in 2016, earning nearly $14 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Its lobbying arm is managed by former U.S. Sens. John Breaux and Trent Lott, and the law firm also employs former House Speaker John Boehner (though he’s not a registered lobbyist) and several former top Republican aides, as the Wall Street Journal reported. “Natasha Hammond, a lobbyist at the firm who worked in the former speaker’s office last year, has been among those...in touch with Mr. Ryan’s office about the provision,” the publication reported. “Ms. Hammond’s firm represents NLMK Inc., which is one of Russia’s largest steel companies, and California Steel Industries Inc., which is owned by Brazilian and Japanese companies.”
The philosophy behind this was explained by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that crafted the House’s version of the water resources bill: “Quotas in any form and in any sort ultimately hurt the consumer. They’re a form of protectionism,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
But protectionism is exactly what candidate Trump promised. And Ryan represents Wisconsin, which is the second-highest state in the percent of manufacturing workers, the very employees most likely to be helped by the Buy American approach Trump has promised.
Not long after the lobbyists went to work, “the Buy America language disappeared,” as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, and Ryan and Republicans were hit with a storm of protests.
“Washington leadership is choosing China and Russia over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “This was the first major test of whether Washington establishment Republicans would live up to President-elect Trump’s promises to put American products and American workers first — they failed.”
Baldwin issued a press release declaring that “Ryan and House Republicans are embracing the status quo in Washington.”
Ryan and congressional leaders responded by restoring the bill’s older language, with a one-year Buy America provision, and axing the Baldwin-authored proposal making the provision a permanent part of the bill.
The House version then went back to the Senate, and Baldwin and Brown called on their colleagues to reinstate the language of the bill they had passed overwhelmingly. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused.
In reaction, Baldwin issued a press release calling on Trump to “take a stand in support of American workers” and back the permanent “Buy American” provision. But nary a word of response was heard from the new president.
It’s possible a provision with a longer life might be passed at some point in the future. But if it could be killed by lobbyists at the height of the hubbub over Trump’s victory and amid his tour touting the critical need for a Buy America policy, what chance has it after all the fervor fades? The provision won’t pass unless Trump teams up with Democrats and rogue Republicans and attempts an end run around GOP leaders like Ryan.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.