Should the U.S. military be encouraged to buy American-made products, especially when it comes to clothing the nation’s service members? According to federal law, including the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment, it should. Recently, though, the Project On Government Oversight reported on growing concerns that the military is not properly following those laws.
For instance, the Berry Amendment mandates that the government purchase American-made products if the order has a $150,000 minimum. The Buy American Act threshold is much lower—$3,000. Anything falling under those amounts, however, can be bought from overseas manufacturers. There is also a clothing allowance program, which currently allows soldiers to purchase clothing separate from bulk military purchases. The high dollar limit for the Berry Amendment in conjunction with the allowance program could be enabling the government to get around the current law.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has proposed a bill (S. 1197) to help address that issue. The bill would require the Department of Defense (DoD) to comply with current domestic contracting requirements when purchasing athletic footwear for initial entrants to the military. In addition, Senator Collins’s bill would shrink the allowance program. POGO supports Senator Collins’s legislation as a strong first step to enforcing contracting laws.
Some people might argue that buying American shoes might cost more than buying foreign-made shoes. According to one POGO source, the American-made athletic shoes can be purchased for service members at the same cost to taxpayers as shoes that were made overseas. (Airman Steven Adachi also found that the “price for equal American-made boots … was actually five to ten dollars less than the invoice price, $85, of the Chinese-made” that he received.) By reducing the athletic shoe allowance program, however, the military will likely save money by encouraging bulk purchases.
In addition to cost savings, there is a growing market of U.S. footwear manufacturers. One U.S. shoe manufacturer has its foot in the federal contracting door, and is able and willing to provide athletic shoes. Additional vendors might enter or reenter the government market.
But POGO hopes Congress takes action that goes beyond just footwear in the military. POGO is advocating for a DoD Inspector General (IG) audit into the DoD’s compliance with existing domestic preference laws, including the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment. Last month, the DoD IG announced a preemptive audit of compliance with the Berry Amendment, stating that it anticipated that legislation was forthcoming. But that audit is limited to Berry compliance, and a look into the Buy American Act is needed too. POGO is asking that the DoD IG conduct a review of recent military procurements, including clothing purchases by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, to determine, among other things:
(1) If there are violations of the Buy American Act or Berry Amendment;
(2) Whether the monetary thresholds are working in the best interest of the government;
(3) Whether orders are placed below the thresholds to avoid domestic preference laws;
(4) What exemptions or waivers to the domestic preference laws have been granted and if they are properly justified;
(5) If cash allowances are being used to circumvent the procurement process and domestic preference laws;
(6) Whether those allowances are wasting taxpayer funds.
In the aforementioned recent report, POGO detailed the experience of one Air Force airman, who, to his profound dismay, twice received Chinese-made boots from the military. In one of those instances, the Air Force ultimately admitted that its acquisition of Chinese-made boots was in violation of the Buy American Act. His complaints to his superiors and requests for American-made boots were rejected multiple times. Unable to alleviate the situation internally, Master Sgt. Steven Adachi brought the story to the press; shortly afterwards, he was reprimanded, likely for his whistleblowing.
Senator Collins is on the right track and her proposed legislation is a great start. POGO hopes that the Senate will adopt amendments to the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that will address footwear in the military and also require a systematic DoD audit to reveal the full extent to which the military is complying with relevant domestic preference contracting laws. After an audit is completed, POGO believes Congress will be able to propose solutions to any widespread contracting problems and take a step toward saving taxpayer dollars.