WASHINGTON ― A key U.S. lawmaker said he plans to propose stiffer federal “Buy American” requirements through the House’s annual defense authorization bill, in a renewed attempt to codify an executive order from President Joe Biden into law.
Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., told Defense News Tuesday that he’s in talks with Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee to draft a compromise amendment when the panel marks up its version of the authorization on Wednesday. The amendment would only pertain to large defense programs, and it could recognize allies in some way, in an effort to assuage them.
“We are actively working with our allies and partners, and those in the defense committee, to try to work out a win not only for our country but for our allies and partners also,” Norcross, a former labor leader who chairs the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, said in an interview.
It’s latest in a back-and-forth between Norcross and allied countries over his efforts to boost domestic jobs and manufacturing by strengthening “Buy American” requirements in federal contracting, which apply to about a third of the $600 billion in goods and services the U.S. government buys each year.
Norcross last year authored legislative language that would have phased in a domestic content requirement of 75% in federal contracts by 2029, up from 55%. The measure fell away in negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the defense bill.
He’s argued that COVID-19-related supply chain disruptions make the case for bringing manufacturing and services that had been moved aboard back to the U.S., especially when national security is at stake.
The Defense Memorandum of Understanding Attachés Group, whose 25 member countries have special reciprocal trade agreements with the U.S., urged House lawmakers to oppose Norcross’s proposal sight-unseen, saying it would drive up prices already beset by inflation.
The chairman of the group, Pieter-Henk Schroor, said that such a proposal could constrain source materials from members and increase defense program acquisition program costs. The group includes Canada, France, Germany and the U.K.
“If you open up your defense-industrial base to the bases of other countries, you might find certain products that are cheaper, but also of a higher quality. And if you use the benefit that offers, we think the overall cost of military equipment would be lower than is currently the case,” he told Defense News on Tuesday. Schroor is the Dutch defense cooperation attaché in Washington.
Norcross has insisted that countries with reciprocal defense trade agreements are exempt and would remain so. The group’s members remain skeptical.
Schroor said those exemptions should be codified in legislation, as the Biden administration’s ongoing review of exemptions to Buy American rules is exacerbating fears the White House will remove them.
“We still do not know for sure” if reciprocal procurement MOUs are actually respected by the administration, Schroor said. “It’s a certainty until someone decides we are no longer exempt. A stronger legislative protection would be very helpful in our case.”
A June 17 letter from Schroor to HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., cited “the need for greater industrial cooperation” in light of supply chain disruptions from COVID-19, China’s military modernization and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Efforts between the U.S. and its allies to ramp up production of weapons to supply Ukraine have thrown a spotlight onto limits of the U.S. defense-industrial base. Schroor said Tuesday the answer is to form a united front and boost production together.
“You see that many Western countries have depleted their own supplies, and our supplies need to be replenished,” he said. “But with a serious situation going on in Europe, that takes a lot of resources. We need a backup plan, and in our view that’s to step our common efforts in defense production.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.