ABC News reported last week that Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH wrote a letter to the undersecretary of acquisitions, Frank Kendall, at the Department of Defense urging them to comply with the Berry Amendment. Passed as part of a 1941 appropriations act, this amendment requires that the military give preference to American businesses when supplying themselves for war. This provision protected the domestic economy during times of war. It worked amazingly during World War II, helping to bring the United States out of depression and onto a path of heretofore unheralded prosperity. However, the manufacturing base of the entire country was devoted to the war effort. Subsequent conflicts did not so capture the national attention and materials had to be excepted from the law because US companies were unable to keep up with the demand.
Senator Sherrod’s letter follows on the heels of another letter written by Representatives Michael Michaud, D-ME and Duncan Hunter, R-CA, both in response to a June story in the Air Force Times about an Air Force Master Sergeant who was issued Chinese-made boots and refused to wear them. Master Sgt. Steve Adachi wrote a letter to the Air Force Times saying that he’s “troubled” that the military is being reduced by budget deficits that he ties, in part, to the “millions of unemployed” American workers. The irony of his situation, however, is that even though he was issued the boots by his unit he was told that he could not exchange them for American-made boots because they were not compliant with the Berry Amendment.
In the same Air Force Times report, Adachi’s unit ordered these Chinese-made boots because they are lighter and cheaper than the American made options. This is analogous to the larger economic problems in America, especially with respect to manufacturing. One a microeconomics level, this unit wanted what they saw as a superior product for less cost. Budgetary constraints apply to most military units, supplies can be hard to come by and they have to be paid for. This is the free-market at work. The Berry Amendment, however, is designed to give American businesses an edge, not constrain the US military to only selecting from sub-standard products. For years, including many of my deployments, service members have purchased their own boots out of their own pocket. The issue here is that Adachi’s unit used government funds.
This situation speaks to the general contradiction that is a natural result of compartmentalizing the issues that are important to the functioning of the country. The economy is bad, so it makes sense that American business should have all of the advantages. The deficit is high, so well-funded departments—like the DoD—should cut costs wherever they can. Perhaps a more productive avenue would be look into the way that government contracts are issued and if it allows for competition. American businesses have to continue to push for innovation and product improvement. These issues are not unrelated. We can’t have our American-made cake and complain about our high blood sugar when we eat it, too.
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