Canadian Manufacturing

164 reasons to applaud U.S.’s ‘do-nothing’ Congress

The current U.S. congress has infamously been among the least productive in history, but for Canada that could be a good thing



WASHINGTON—Even if Americans are historically unhappy with their Congress as they head to the polls this week, there are a few good reasons for Canadians and other foreigners to celebrate this era of legislative lethargy.

One-hundred-and-sixty-four reasons, to be more precise.

That’s the number of protectionist Buy American measures that have stalled, according to a tally from the last four years compiled by the Canadian government.

The figures show that all but one of 165 bills that included Buy American provisions failed to make it through Congress since that body became split four years ago between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

Put another way, that’s a legislative success rate of about 0.6 per cent.

That’s low even for what’s commonly called “the do-nothing Congress,” where just two per cent of bills have become law among the 22,000-plus introduced the last four years.

Canada’s ambassador said his team deserves some credit for this. Using a hockey analogy, Gary Doer said his staff at the embassy in Washington lobbied hard, attempting to make the case that hurting Canadian companies could affect American ones because of the integrated supply chain.

“Our view is, if you’re a goalie, stopping 164 out of 165 shots, that’s good,” Doer said in an interview. “But in a supply chain, anything that gets through is not good.”

The one that made it through was part of a water-infrastructure bill. Doer said other measures might have had a worse impact had they proceeded, including a public-transit bill he said would have been devastating for Canadian manufacturers.

Based on the list provided by the Canadian government, The Canadian Press counted that:

  • Two-third of the bills with Buy American measures since January 2011 have come from Democrats—about 116 of the 165. Only one-third were sponsored by Republicans.
  • Many came from the northeast, midwest and west coast, but the plurality were sponsored from lawmakers on the so-called rust belt. Thirty-eight came from traditional manufacturing hubs like Ohio and Michigan.
  • The undisputed king of Buy American provisions, from among the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, was Sen. Sherrod Brown. The Ohio Democrat sponsored nine such bills. That was nearly double any other lawmaker.
  • The proposals varied widely in size and importance. Just looking at Brown’s own bills, some held major implications for Canada _ such as one to ensure all infrastructure projects receiving U.S. government money be built with American material.

Others were less consequential, like Brown’s All-American Flag Act: “The American flag is one of our nation’s greatest symbols,” Brown said, announcing the measure. “It’s only fitting that we honour our veterans and express our patriotism by supporting American workers and businesses. American flags should be American-made.”

Bills like these get lots of attention in Canada when they’re introduced.

The reality, however, is that a bill introduced in the current U.S. Congress is about half as likely to become law as even a longshot private member’s bill introduced in Canada’s House of Commons.

About four per cent of private members’ bills introduced in Commons became law in the last session before prorogation—15 out of 340. For government-sponsored bills in the Commons, the rate was 77 per cent—50 out of 65.

The U.S. congressional system, with its myriad of vetoes, filibusters and other procedural checks-and-balances, is specifically designed to avoid such easy bill-making.

However, Americans are especially unhappy with their current legislature.

They will be voting Tuesday to bring an end to the most statistically unproductive Congress in generations, in midterm elections some optimists hope might break the legislative logjam in Washington. A lower-than-ever 14 per cent of Americans surveyed by Gallup have expressed support for the current Congress.

Mitt Romney offered a few examples of things Republicans could force through, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, and presidential fast-track to negotiate the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership free-trade deal.

Those priorities speak to areas where legislative paralysis has frustrated the Canadian government.

It turns out that there are quite a few of those, too:

  • The current Congress failed to send a Keystone bill to the president’s desk, partly because the Democratic leadership in the Senate interfered.
  • The Congress also slowed down international free-trade talks, because divided Democrats wouldn’t bring a fast-track bill up for a vote in the Senate.
  • Costly meat-labelling rules were left intact, even after they were condemned by the World Trade Organization.
  • Snowbirds would have been allowed to spend more time in the U.S. each year, under an omnibus immigration bill that passed the Senate, but House Republicans were divided on immigration and refused to touch it.

As for Buy American, the Canadian government hopes a future free-trade deal might finally settle procurement uncertainty for Canadian companies, once and for all. The status quo in NAFTA allows Canadians access to big federal projects, but would require side-deals for state and local projects.

“We want to get a more modern procurement policy (in the Trans-Pacific Partnership), rather than dealing with 165 proposals,” Doer said. “But that’s in a state of suspended animation because there’s no fast-track authority.”

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