WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maine’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation to give U.S. shoe manufacturers like New Balance, with three facilities in Maine, an edge with the military.
At issue is a loophole in the U.S. military’s acquisition process allowing it to purchase foreign-made athletic footwear.
The bills — introduced last week in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives — address what’s known as the Berry amendment, which requires American soldiers to wear U.S.-made uniforms and equipment.
The military conforms with the law when it comes to equipment and uniforms, including boots, but has avoided the requirement when it comes to athletic footwear, according to Matthew LeBretton, director of public affairs for the Boston-based New Balance.
The company manufactures 25 percent of its athletic shoes at five facilities in the United States, and claims it is the only major shoe manufacturer that still makes athletic footwear in the country. The company employs 900 Mainers at manufacturing facilities in Norway, Norridgewock and Skowhegan. It also operates two manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts.
According to LeBretton, the Army, Navy and Air Force provide cash allowances to new recruits to purchase their own athletic shoes, thereby avoiding the domestic requirement. He said the Marines require recruits to buy their own sneakers, but don’t give them cash to do so.
The bills introduced last week would require any athletic shoes purchased for new soldiers, either by direct purchase or through a cash allowance, be subject to the domestic sourcing requirements laid out in the Berry amendment, which passed in 1941.
A request for comment from the Department of Defense was not returned Tuesday.
LeBretton said the military has cited soldier choice in its decision to use the loophole, “which is an incongruous argument to me in that soldiers aren’t given choice in anything else they wear.”
New Balance in 2011 produced 5,000 pairs of Berry-compliant shoes to show that the country’s manufacturing industry has the wherewithal to provide the shoes.
Based on the Defense Department’s own numbers, LeBretton estimates the U.S. military would require a quarter of a million athletic shoes a year for new recruits. A contract to provide those shoes would translate into the addition of roughly 200 new jobs at the company’s facilities and through its supply chain, LeBretton said.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King introduced the Senate bill on Friday, while Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree introduced a companion bill in the House on Thursday.
The legislation is the culmination of four years of conversations with Maine’s congressional delegation, other lawmakers and the Defense Department, LeBretton said.
“We’ve made this a top priority of this company and our industry,” he said.
Rep. Mike Michaud introduced a similar bill in 2011, while Sens. Collins and Olympia Snowe had sought to address it through amendments in past defense bills.
Sen. Collins authored the Senate bill.
“The president said in his State of the Union address that one of his top priorities is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing. We share this priority,” Sen. Collins said in a statement. “One way we can make that possible without increasing the federal deficit a single dime is to make sure that the athletic footwear purchased every year by entry-level military recruits is manufactured by U.S. companies like New Balance.”
Besides helping New Balance, the legislation would also encourage other U.S. shoe manufacturers to return some of their manufacturing to the country, according to Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Sen. Collins’ office.
“It’s long past time that the Defense Department complies with the letter and spirit of the law,” Rep. Michaud said in a statement. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it could provide a shot to the arm to companies like New Balance that employ hundreds of Mainers in Norway, Norridgewock and Skowhegan.”