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EVOLUTION OF BUY AMERICAN POLICIES

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EVOLUTION OF BUY AMERICAN POLICIES

President Trump has used Executive Orders to extend the reach of how “Buy American” legislation is implemented by federal agencies in their procurement evaluations. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to “use taxpayer dollars to buy American and spark American innovation”. Recent polling shows Americans believe Buy American policies support job creation.

While support for “Made in the USA” products appears politically trendy right now, the concept of maximizing taxpayer spend on goods and services with high U.S. content is far from new. In fact, it extends all the way back to our foundation. Recent polling shows Americans believe Buy American policies support job creation.ing. Here’s a primer on the evolution of Buy American policies.

1770s: Birth of America, Birth of Buy American

By the late 1760s, American colonists start a “non-consumption movement” against British goods in the attempt to force Britain to repeal its taxes. In Boston, merchants vote to block English trade, a move that culminates in the famous Boston Tea Party and the dumping of 45 tons of British tea into the harbor. The First Continental Congress of 1774 threatens a boycott of British goods. Patriotic colonists are expected to purchase goods made in America. Daughters of Liberty hold spinning and weaving parties to whip up American textiles. At his first inauguration, George Washington wears a brown suit of broadcloth from Hartford, Connecticut in a show of American-made symbolism.

1930s: The First Buy American Act

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst decorates his mastheads with American flags to launch a popular Buy American campaign to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. Hearst’s own views and politics were tinged with racism. His anti-immigrant sentiment and reporting was likely a contributing factor to the Japanese-American internment that occurred during World War II.

On his last day in office, President Herbert Hoover signs the foundational Buy American Act of 1933. Above a certain dollar threshold, the federal government’s direct purchases must prefer domestic goods, defined as 100 percent manufactured in the United States with at least 50 percent domestic content. The requirement does not apply to third parties like private sector contractors who win funding through government procurement awards. The Act is promoted to safeguard American jobs for major infrastructure projects, including the Hoover Dam.

Historical Timeline of Buy American Legislation

1970s – 1980s: Manufacturing in Decline

The Buy America Act of 1982, a provision of The Surface Transportation Assistance Act, is introduced in reaction to capital flight in the 1970s and the beginning of steady decline in manufacturing employment. The requirements are extended to purchases made by third party agencies, as well as those made directly by the federal government. The act applies to the construction of highways, railways, and rapid transit systems.

The definition of “American-made” becomes more complex: all steel and iron components of end products must be mined, melted and manufactured in the United States, with an exception for “minimal use” if the materials constitute a low value or low percentage of the overall contract value.

1990s: Defense Purchases and the Berry Amendment

The Berry Amendment to the Fifth Supplemental Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 1941 gives preference in defense procurement to a range of products including clothing, food, and fabrics grown, produced or manufactured in the United States. It imposes stricter domestic content requirements on such purchases than the Buy American Act and is made permanent in 1994.

Trump's Buy American EOs

2000s: Trump Executive Orders

In the 2000s, the Obama administration approves Buy American requirements in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. All public projects backed by the Act’s funding were required to use domestically-produced iron, steel and manufactured goods unless the cost of doing so increased the overall project cost by 25 percent.

During his presidency, Trump has made extensive use of Executive Orders to shape federal agency implementation of Buy American requirements. He signs the Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American on April 18, 2017 “to promote economic and national security and to help stimulate economic growth, create good jobs at decent wages, strengthen our middle class, and support the American manufacturing and defense industrial bases.” The Order reaffirms that all aspects of steel and iron production must occur in the United States.

The Buy America Act does not apply to the acquisition of goods that are not commercially available in the United States in sufficient quality or quantity, or when it would be “inconsistent with the public interest.” Buy America preferences may also be waived if inconsistent with commitments made to U.S. trading partners under the WTO Government Procurement Agreement or U.S. free trade agreements.

Trump’s 2017 Executive Order directs federal agencies to scrutinize their compliance with Buy America requirements and to minimize their use of such waivers to purchase foreign goods and services. In addition, the Order mandates that, “to the extent permitted by law, before granting a public interest waiver, the relevant agency shall take appropriate account of whether a significant portion of the cost advantage of a foreign-sourced product is the result of the use of dumped steel, iron, or manufactured goods or the use of injuriously subsidized steel, iron, or manufactured goods.”

Foreign End Products in Fed Procurement

Trump signs an Executive Order on Strengthening Buy-American Preferences for Infrastructure Projects on January 31, 2019. The Order extends the previous order, targeting infrastructure projects that receive federal financial assistance awards, greatly widening the scope of affected programs and projects.

On July 15, 2019, Trump signs an Executive Order on Maximizing Use of American-Made Goods, Products, and MaterialsThe Order reinterprets the so-called “component test” to increase the thresholds for U.S.-origin components. Iron and steel end products must contain 95 percent or greater U.S. origin “parts or materials”. Other products must contain 55 percent or more U.S. parts or materials.

Most recently, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Ensuring Essential Medicines, Medical Countermeasures, and Critical Inputs Are Made in the United States on August 6, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the goal of reducing dependence on foreign supply chains and strengthening domestic ones, the order declares U.S. policy to accelerate domestic production of essential medicines; ensure long-term demand for the medicines produced; create and maximize domestic production for Critical Inputs and Finished Drug Products; and combat the trafficking of such medical equipment and products.

Criticism of Buy America Requirements

A 2018 study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that of the $196 billion in federal obligations in fiscal year 2017 to purchase end products, just $7.8 billion or 4 percent were foreign end products purchased using exceptions to Buy America requirements. 47.1 percent of that amount went to end products used outside the United States and just 7 percent of the amount was purchased using waivers associated with free trade agreement obligations.

Beyond the waivers for purchasing foreign goods, critics argue that instead of being a boon to U.S. contractors, domestic content requirements create additional and costly regulatory burdens for U.S. companies competing for federal contracts. Buy America requirements may reduce procurement choices for federal agencies like the Department of Defense while potentially increasing costs to U.S. taxpayers. The jobs argument behind Buy America has also been scrutinized. In one economic analysis by trade economist Tori Smith, Smith argues that the steel purchasing requirements in Buy American legislation have done little to stem employment losses in the U.S. steel industry, in steady decline since 1980.

Neither is the United States out of line when it comes to imports as a percentage of overall public procurement. The average is 4.4 percent, which is the U.S. rate of purchases. Put in further context, imports as a percentage of U.S. GDP is generally lower than its peers in the OECD, at just 17 percent. The United States may have more to lose economically by reducing opportunities for foreign suppliers in the U.S. procurement market. In 2018, the global procurement market was worth an estimated $11 trillion. In a boomerang effect, U.S. companies could lose the ability to bid on foreign government projects if other countries expand their own Buy European or Buy China requirements.

Imports as Share of Procurement

Where Trump and Biden Meet

Presidential candidate Joe Biden has put forward his own version of Buy American as part of his platform to “ensure the future is made in all of America by all of America’s workers.” Biden promises to use taxpayer dollars to buy American and spark American innovation.

In the debate over which candidate can out-“buy-American” the other, only one thing is clear: the United States is not the only country looking for ways to help its domestic economy recover from COVID-19. But buyer beware: domestic purchase requirements can have adverse effects on the companies they are intended to help while putting additional strain on federal agency budgets. The more countries that impose them, the greater the chance that gains from global government procurement trade policies will be reduced.

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Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fifteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

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AMERICANS LOVE TO “BUY AMERICAN”

TradeVistas’ September poll shows overwhelming support for “Buy American” policies, while one in four Americans – and nearly 1 in 3 Republicans – say trade is “the most important issue” in their vote for president this election cycle.


“Buy American” is likely to be a prominent campaign theme this fall as Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat party candidate Joe Biden sketch out their plans for reviving the U.S. economy in the midst of a pandemic.

Biden’s aggressive “Buy American” agenda proposes major investments in federal procurement and infrastructure to support domestic manufacturing. Trump, meanwhile, has made “Buy American” a cornerstone of his Administration. After campaigning in 2016 to bring back U.S. jobs lost to global competition, Trump has levied tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, launched a trade war against China and issued executive orders aimed at ensuring that U.S. companies were the federal government’s preferred suppliers.

TradeVistas’ September poll of 1,003 adults, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, shows strong support for “America First” approaches like Buy American. Our survey shows strong bipartisan approval of Buy American federal procurement policies, which a plurality of Americans say would create large numbers of jobs. Americans also say they support Buy American in their personal spending, with a slight majority saying they’d pay a premium for U.S.-made goods. Finally, we find that the Trump’s Administration’s focus on trade policy may have elevated the importance of this issue among many voters, particularly among Republicans and likely Trump voters.


1. Big support for “Buy American.”

Overall, three out of four Americans (75 percent) say they support Buy American policies requiring the federal government to buy from domestic suppliers whenever possible.* Nearly half – 48 percent – say they “strongly support” the policy, while just 5 percent of Americans say they are either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed, while 21 percent were “indifferent.”

Majority support was consistent across education, race and income, but was strongest among self-described Republicans, 70 percent of whom “strongly support” the policy (compared to 40 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Independents). Among likely voters, 68 percent of those planning to vote for Trump also said they “strongly support” Buy American, compared to 41 percent among likely Biden voters and 39 percent among those who were undecided. Men were also more likely to be strong supporters (56 percent versus 41 percent).

Q1 Do you support Buy American Policies

2. Strong belief that “Buy American” policies generate jobs

While some prominent economists have criticized Buy American policies as counterproductive and potentially even leading to the loss of U.S. jobs, respondents in our survey believe the opposite. Nearly 4 in 5 respondents (79 percent) say Buy American procurement policies would create jobs, including 41 percent who say it would create “a large number of jobs” and 38 percent who say it would create “some new jobs.” Again, this support was consistent across race, education and income.

Democrats were more skeptical than Republicans, however. While 60 percent of Republicans said Buy American would create many jobs, 36 percent of Democrats said the same. (However, only 2 percent of Democrats said the policy would “hurt American jobs.”) Similarly, likely Trump voters were more likely to say Buy American would create large numbers of jobs compared to likely Biden voters (59 percent versus 31 percent). Undecideds fell in the middle with 42 percent.

Q2 Do Buy American policies create jobs numbers corrected

3. Americans would pay more to Buy American themselves

Americans in our survey seem to support Buy American as a broad statement of economic patriotism and would pay more to buy U.S.-made goods.

Twenty-five percent of respondents in our survey said they would choose an American-made good over a comparable foreign product “regardless of cost,” while 31 percent say they would pay a 10 to 20 percent premium. Another 25 percent said they would buy the U.S. product if it were the same price as a comparable item, while 9 percent said they would purchase the cheaper product, and 10 percent were unsure.

Q3 Would you pay more to Buy American

These results run counter to earlier surveys finding that while the majority of Americans believe it important to buy U.S. products, they are less willing to pony up a premium. A 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll, for instance, found that while 70 percent of Americans think if “very important” or “somewhat important” to buy U.S. goods, 37 percent said they would not pay more for an American product, while 26 percent said they would pay only up to 5 percent more.

One potential explanation for our results is negative shifting consumer sentiment toward products made in China. A 2020 survey by FTI Consulting, for instance, found that 40 percent of Americans say they won’t buy Chinese-made goods.

Our survey found significant partisan differences over buying American, which indicate a solidification of views likely prompted by Trump. While 46 percent of Republicans said they would buy American regardless of price, just 18 percent of Democrats said the same (although 32 percent of Democrats also said they would be willing to pay a 10 to 20 percent premium). The starkest difference, however, was between Republican men and Democratic women. While 52 percent of Republican men said they would buy American regardless of cost, only 14 percent of Democratic women said they would do so.

Q3 Would you pay more by gender and party

4. Trade as a crucial election issue for key sets of voters

Partisan enthusiasm for Buy American may also translate into the elevation of trade as an election issue for many of the respondents in our survey. Overall, 19 percent of total respondents said a candidate’s position on trade is “the most important issue to me,” while 25 percent said trade is “one of the most important issues” determining their vote for president.

These figures, however, mask significant partisan differences in how likely voters view the importance of trade. For instance, while 66 percent of Republicans in our survey said trade was the most important or among the most important issues to them in their vote for president, half as many Democrats (33 percent) felt the same. Similarly, while 64 percent of likely Trump voters said trade was the most important issue or among the most important election issues to them, 62 percent of likely Biden voters said trade “is important but will not have an effect on my vote” or is “not an issue I really care about.” Trade does, however, seem to matter for undecided voters in our poll; 59 percent considered the issue to be the most important or among the most important in their vote for president.


These results mirror findings showing sharp partisan differences in the issues that matter most to voters this fall. The Pew Research Center, for instance, finds that while the economy is the top concern of Trump voters, Biden supporters are the most concerned about health care and the pandemic. For many Republicans and Trump supporters, the interest in trade policy is likely a proxy for this broader concern over the economy.

Q4 How Important is Trade to your vote


“Buy American” has always made for good politics, tapping into Americans’ strong sense of economic patriotism. But there are a couple reasons why American sentiment toward buying American might be especially strong today, even aside from the particular focus on U.S. production by President Trump.

For one thing, the coronavirus pandemic exposed major weaknesses in global supply chains, reinforcing concerns about U.S. over-reliance on foreign imports, particularly for medicines, medical equipment and other vital products. Boosting domestic production and manufacturing will also be crucial to America’s post-pandemic recovery. So long as millions of Americans remain under-employed or unemployed as a result of COVID-19, federal investment in domestic production or infrastructure could help put Americans back to work.

Given both political parties’ embrace of Buy American, it will be a priority regardless of who wins the White House in November.



*Note: While our survey sought to measure Americans’ perspectives on “Buy American” as a matter of federal policy, we realize that Americans are likely to interpret “Buy American” more broadly, to include personal spending decisions as well as those by the government. Politicians have also added to the confusion by using the phrase “Buy American” to show support for domestic manufacturing and production generally.

Methodology: 1,003 interviews among adults age 18+ were conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies from September 10-12, 2020 using an online survey. The results were weighted to ensure proportional responses. The Bayesian confidence interval for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level.

Access the polling questions and results by Lincoln Park Strategies here.

Download the full infographic.

TradeVistas Buy American Opinion Poll Infographic

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a contributing editor to Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020 from the New Press. Her writings on economic opportunity, social policy, and higher education have appeared in numerous national outlets, including the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, Governing and Atlantic.com, among others. She is a veteran of the think tanks the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way as well as of Capitol Hill, where she worked for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Anne has a law degree from Duke University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.