By Phil Kadner
All future U.S. Olympic team uniforms and equipment would be made in America under a bill introduced Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd).
The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), is a response to a national uproar over the revelation that uniforms for the Summer Olympics in London were made in China.
"All of this controversy will hopefully make the U.S. Olympic Committee aware that during the Winter Olympics of 2014 Americans don't want to see their athletes in foreign-made uniforms," Lipinski told me during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
"The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics are watched throughout the world, and it's embarrassing to know that our athletes are going to be wearing uniforms made in China.
"The Olympics is a showcase for our finest athletes, and we're proud of them and their achievements. But let's also let the world see what the best American workers can do."
Lipinski has been pounding away at the federal government, trying to enforce existing Buy American laws and pass legislation that toughens them.
He has said that despite a Buy American provision now in effect, which requires governments to give preference to American companies when taking bids on contracts, the bureaucracy often ignores the provision.
For example, Lipinski discovered that the Defense Department had awarded a $670,000 contract for forklifts to a South Korean company without seriously considering a bid from Hoist Liftruck in Bedford Park.
"The Hoist bid may have been slightly higher than that of the South Korean company but was certainly within reason. It was only slightly higher," he said.
After Lipinski intervened, the contract was awarded to Hoist.
He said such a situation isn't unusual because U.S. officials often actively seek ways to exploit loopholes in the Buy American Act.
As an example, he pointed to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project. California obtained a federal grant for the project that required the state to give preference to American companies for steel.
To avoid the Buy American component, the state divided the project into 16 parts, using the federal funds to pay for less expensive improvements and freeing the state to buy all the expansion beam steel from China.
"I thought it was an Internet hoax when I first heard about that," Lipinski said. "I actually went on Snopes.com to see if it was some baseless rumor. It wasn't."
He said government procurement agencies often waive Buy American requirements from their purchases, claiming there are no U.S. companies available to make a bid.
"That's why, among other things, I want government agencies to post on an Internet site accessible to the public whenever they waive the Buy American Act, so American companies can see it and protest if they can compete with foreign companies," the congressman said.
When news broke about new train cars purchased by the Chicago Transit Authority having to be recalled because of faulty parts made in China, Lipinski asked Congress to pass a bill requiring that trains purchased with federal money be 100 percent made in America. The CTA purchased 706 rail cars supplied by a Chinese foundry to Bombardier Transportation of Canada, and the flaws were found after 54 of the cars were in service.
Lipinski failed to get that 100 percent bill passed as well as another, the Buy American Improvement Act, which would close loopholes in the Buy American law.
But even with the furor over the Olympic team uniforms, Lipinski is wary of getting his bill passed, amending the charter of the U.S. Olympic Committee to require it to buy goods substantially made in the United States.
So he and Jones have also introduced a House resolution that merely encourages the Olympic Committee to consider the economic consequences of purchasing decisions and to "strive to ensure that all of the clothing and equipment purchased" for Olympic athletes is made in America.
"Given the political climate, it's just difficult to get any bill passed by Congress. It's much easier to get a resolution approved," Lipinski said.
While I understand the symbolic significance of having American athletes wear clothing made in the U.S. during the Olympics, the issue of our tax dollars being spent on foreign-made products is much larger than that.
Where American companies can compete for government contracts, they should be given preference.
"I've received more responses on my Facebook page to my comments opposing the Olympic uniforms than anything I've ever done or said," Lipinski said. "Maybe this can focus the public's attention on the broader issue."