Murphy: Database would help U.S. companies compete for federal contracts

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., wants to make it easier for U.S. manufacturers to find out when federal agencies pick a foreign company to make a part that they say isn't available domestically.

Murphy has criticized federal agencies, and specifically the Department of Defense, the government's largest purchaser of goods and services, for skirting policies aimed at giving preference to American suppliers.

When Congress reconvenes after Labor Day, Murphy intends to introduce the BuyAmerican.gov Act, which would establish a centralized database that would provide federal contracting information and list any "Buy American" waivers that federal agencies intend to use in awarding contracts.

"The idea is that it would be easily searchable. So, if you're a company that makes a specific product, you can get an alert telling you when a waiver has been requested for a product that you make," Murphy said.

The Buy American Act, which has seldom been amended since it was enacted in 1933, requires the government to give preference to American suppliers for bulk purchases of more than $3,000. Similar laws are in place in various states. There are numerous exceptions and waivers permissible, though, under both the state and federal laws. The most common of them is "non-availability," that a product isn't available in the U.S., Murphy said.

That can be "easily contested if you can show you make it," he added.

The database would help crack down on misuse of these waivers by agencies such as the Department of Defense, which has displayed "rampant noncompliance" with Buy American policies, Murphy said. The department has used hundreds of thousands of waivers to spend almost $200 million on foreign-made goods in the last decade, according to Murphy.

"The Department of Defense is not serious about compliance, so this is a way to get companies to do some of the enforcement," Murphy said by phone Friday after hosting a roundtable with Connecticut defense manufacturers.

The manufacturers, the majority of whom already do business with the federal government, expressed widespread support for his proposal, Murphy said. They complained about "the byzantine information systems that they have to use when interacting with the federal government," he said, adding, "It's impossible to track down when a waiver has been granted for something that you make."

Critics say forcing the federal government to buy American-made goods and services can increase costs and reduce innovation due to lack of competition, and in some cases could increase the time it takes to manufacture a product.

But President Donald Trump also has pushed for buying American. In April, he introduced a "Buy American, Hire American" executive order aimed at restricting the use of work visas by foreign nationals and promoting the purchase of American-made goods.

Murphy, who's been critical of Trump on most issues, was quick to support that executive order. His office has been working directly with the White House for several months on how to strengthen Buy American policies, he said.

"Right now, the most likely pieces of the Buy America agenda to pass are the ones with Republican support," Murphy said. "We shopped a bunch of ideas to the Trump administration and this one had the best chance of support."

The two sides still are working out the details, he added.

j.bergman@theday.com

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