As the Trump administration moves to limit the military’s reliance on foreign products and raw materials, some lawmakers are rallying to the cause.
Seizing on the opportunity to boost the economic interests of their home districts, a few are seeking to make small changes to U.S. law to give local firms an advantage on government contracts.
In this case, it’s not in support of aircraft carriers. Or spyware.
They are fighting for forks.
Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), a freshman congresswoman from New York’s 22nd District, wants to add flatware to a list of products that the military has to buy from a U.S. manufacturer.
If the push succeeds it could be a windfall for Sherrill Manufacturing, also known as Liberty Tabletop, which is based in Tenney’s district.
Sherrill is the modern-day incarnation of a once-mighty New York manufacturer called Oneida, which in its heyday employed thousands of factory workers in Upstate New York. Its fortunes turned for the worse in the early 2000s when competition from overseas manufacturers drove down prices. The firm closed its New York operations in 2004 and sold its much-diminished local assets to what is now Sherrill Manufacturing.
Today Sherrill gets about a third of its revenue from a government contract with the General Services Administration. The company and its advocates say it is the only flatware firm that fully sources its products from inside the country, drawing on a supply chain that spans five states and dozens of companies, including an Ohio-based steel supplier.
But competition from abroad is still a challenge.
“The business isn’t what it used to be,” chief executive Greg Owens said. “Back in the good old days, we used to do $5 million or $6 million a year with the [General Services Administration], but now we’ve been doing about $800,000 a year.”
Part of the problem, Owens says, is that he suspects “independent buying” is taking place at military installations, allowing agencies to buy silverware that isn’t made by his firm. As recently as this week, the Defense Department’s inspector general found 19 government contracts for a variety of goods worth $453.2 million that were not compliant with “Buy American” laws.
Sherrill’s predecessor, Oneida, operated as the only U.S. flatware producer compliant with the Berry Amendment, which requires that the Pentagon rely on American firms when it buys basic necessities such as food and clothing. But the legal protection for U.S.-produced flatware was removed in 2006 amid a broader legislative effort to loosen domestic sourcing restrictions for certain specialty metals.
“There was no domestic provider of steel flatware at the time, so there was no need to cover it under the Berry Amendment,” said Jeff Green, a lobbyist who worked on the 2006 policy change when he was a House Armed Services Committee staff member.
Today, Owens and his allies in Congress see a new political tail wind.
President Trump stormed into office on promises that he would rip up international trade agreements and put American interests first. Trump’s Commerce Department is weighing broader restrictions on steel and aluminum that some worry could spark a trade war. The administration is working within the Pentagon bureaucracy to limit foreign companies’ footprint within the military’s vast supply chain by more closely enforcing Buy American laws, including the Berry Amendment.
Owens has been working with Tenney and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to find ways to sway government policy in his company’s favor.
Tenney tried and failed this week to pass an amendment that would add “stainless steel flatware” to a list of products the military has to buy from manufacturers with U.S.-based supply chains.
Hannah Andrews, a spokeswoman for Tenney’s office, said “we’re going to keep up the fight to get this into law.” Their next plan is to work through a separate committee to get it added to the omnibus spending bill that will eventually head for the president’s desk.
Schumer may introduce a similar amendment in the Senate.
A March 2016 letter signed by Schumer says that the GSA promised to remove 11 companies that had been falsely listing their products as “Made in the U.S.A.,” from a GSA website.
In it, Schumer praised Sherrill’s homegrown credentials.
“Sherrill Manufacturing produces high-quality American-made products,” Schumer wrote.
Sherrill’s flatware lists on the GSA’s procurement website alongside competing global suppliers with the proud tagline “The ONLY flatware Made in the USA.”
Budget hawks tend to oppose domestic sourcing requirements on the grounds that they reduce price competition.
“Men and women in uniform deserve the best product at the best price,” said Steve Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “This is Congress putting their thumb on the scale, and it’s eventually going to cost taxpayers.”
Tenney’s office says nothing is stopping another U.S. firm from creating a “made in America” supply chain to compete with Sherrill. Her plan calls for a one-year grace period, which could give competitors time to make changes.
Originally published in The Washington Post.