In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden slammed “past administrations” that have rejected requirements to buy American-made materials for federal infrastructure projects. He might want to look in the mirror.
“Buy American has been the law of the land since 1933. But for too long, past administrations have found ways to get around it,” the president said Tuesday night. “Not anymore. Tonight, I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects built in America.”
The new standards Biden mentioned are actually standards established by Congress that would be in effect today but for waivers made by his administration. These requirements have long been found to increase the cost of infrastructure projects, but the promise of creating more cost-increasing American jobs makes them a popular provision.
The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which Biden signed into law in November 2021, reinstated requirements that federally funded infrastructure use American-made iron and steel. It also extended those requirements to building materials such as drywall, copper wire, fiber optic cable and wood.
Biden was so proud of those new Buy America provisions, he made sure to mention them in his 2022 State of the Union address.
“I am announcing that this year we will begin repairing more than 65,000 miles of highways and 1,500 bridges that are dilapidated,” the president said that night. “When we use taxpayer dollars to rebuild America, we’re going to buy American. Buy American products to support American jobs.”
These requirements were to begin within 180 days of the law’s passage. Just before they did, the Biden administration’s Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a 180-day waiver for new Buy America provisions for construction materials, citing the cost and complexity of complying with those provisions.
Public comments from state transportation departments, public transit agencies and contractors generally support the waiver, and in fact, it lasts at least 18 months and up to four years.
The reason is quite straightforward: Buy America provisions greatly increase the cost of infrastructure projects.
As I noted during Biden’s last State of the Union, buying American steel for infrastructure projects costs nearly twice as much as importing it from China, according to a 2019 Congressional Research report. The mandate cost American road builders an additional $2 billion from 2009 to 2011, when then-Vice President Biden was overseeing the spending of stimulus dollars on infrastructure projects.
Procuring American-made buses means we pay Japan and Korea twice as much for their rolling stock. Our train cars cost 34 percent more because we insist on buying American.
DOT officially allows the waiver to expire on schedule in November 2022 But in January, it issued regulatory guidance extending that waiver for contracts for DOT-funded projects through March 2023 for requests proposed before May 2022.
Expanding Buy America provisions, and cracking down on waivers, has been a major theme of all administrations and most State of the Union addresses. That they exempt themselves from these requirements shows that Biden — and his predecessors — understand on some level that they’re a bad idea.