By Douglas Moser
A proposal in Congress to require athletic shoes bought by new members of the armed services be totally made domestically could add 200 or more jobs locally.
The proposal, by Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, and Congressman Mike Michaud, D-Maine, would make athletic footwear used for basic training paid for with allowances of public funds to new recruits follow the same requirement as most other military clothing and cloth-based equipment.
New Balance, the Boston-based athletic shoe and clothing manufacturer and its largest plant in Lawrence, stands to benefit as one of two American footwear companies that can offer products that comply with military regulations and the domestic-origin requirement.
"It is time for the Department of Defense to treat athletic footwear like every other uniform item, including boots, and buy them from American manufacturers," Tsongas said. "DoD has spent approximately $180 million on the athletic footwear cash allowance program to date, which is money that could have gone to American jobs and manufacturing."
Since 2002, the Pentagon has given new recruits a cash allowance to buy athletic shoes for basic training, which means the purchase does not have to follow a 1941 rule requiring uniforms be 100-percent American made in every part of the supply chain as much as possible. Tsongas and Michaud's proposal would bring the cash allowance under that requirement.
Matt LeBretton, director of public affairs for New Balance, said the company already manufactures athletic clothing for different branches of the military, and those products currently must comply with the 100-percent-American-made rule. They have designed footwear that would be compliant, and would not be commercially available.
"It's a matter of pride for us," he said. "There's a lot of pride in being a domestic manufacturer for the armed services."
New Balance has two factories in Massachusetts -- Brighton and Lawrence -- and three in Maine where it manufactures its athletic wear. LeBretton said Lawrence is the biggest facility and includes testing and research and development. Requiring recruits to use their military allowance on 100-percent-American-manufactured footwear would give a boost to New Balance and Wolverine World Wide, the other qualifying manufacturer.
"Based on the demand we see now, it would create up to 200 jobs, and a large number of those would be in Lawrence," LeBretton said.
Wolverine World Wide, based in Rockford, Mich., makes brands including Saucony, Patagonia, Hush Puppies and Keds.
The 1941 rule, called the Berry Amendment, requires that uniforms and other equipment made of textiles purchased by the military to be made in the United States at all stages of the supply chain, but allowances given to recruits to purchase shoes do not have to follow that rule.
"The Army originally cited the lack of compliant, American-made options in the marketplace to justify its allowance program," Tsongas said. "But today, those arguments are not valid. Innovative companies, such as New Balance right here in Massachusetts, are able to provide our service members with quality products and keep business here on American soil. We are boosting job growth, spurring economic development and innovation and giving the brave men and women of our armed forces better gear."
LeBretton and Michael Hartigan, communications director for Tsongas, said this requirement, if approved, would not exceed the allowance the Pentagon currently gives to its recruits.
"We don't believe that this is a cost increase for the military based on what military already spends per recruit," LeBretton said. "They're already spending for the shoes. They're simply not made in the USA for the most part. It absolutely doesn't make sense."
The proposal was attached to a large annual defense funding and policy bill, which passed in the House of Representatives June 14. The Senate's version is waiting for debate and a vote.