House passes bill co-sponsored by Michaud forcing military to buy American-made sneakers

Posted June 27, 2013, at 6:19 a.m.
Last modified June 27, 2013, at 6:42 a.m.
Rep. Mike Michaud gave this pair of New Balance sneakers made in Maine to President Barack Obama as part of an effort to require the U.S. military to purchase athletic footwear made in the country.
Office of Rep. Mike Michaud
Rep. Mike Michaud gave this pair of New Balance sneakers made in Maine to President Barack Obama as part of an effort to require the U.S. military to purchase athletic footwear made in the country.

At boot camp, U.S. Army recruits receive four sets of camouflage fatigues, 100 percent American-made. For women, the clothing package from Uncle Sam is missing one layer: undies. Neither gender gets sneakers.

A 1941 law directs the Pentagon to choose made-in-the-U.S.A. products when buying clothing for soldiers. Still, recruits receive cash allowances to buy items such as sneakers and women’s underwear, even if they come from China.

New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., the last major manufacturer to produce athletic footwear in the United States, may gain by forcing the government to live up to its own rules. The House voted this month to require the Pentagon to give American-made athletic shoes to recruits, after more than three years of lobbying by New Balance.

“It’s the law and it should be complied with, not circumvented,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who co-sponsored the measure. “Purchases made by the U.S. government should benefit our domestic economy.”

Boston-based New Balance employs 900 Mainers at manufacturing facilities in Norway, Norridgewock and Skowhegan. It also operates two manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts.

Athletic shoes and women’s underwear are two examples of how the government has skirted requirements to spend taxpayer money on American-made goods. The so-called Berry Amendment, a World War II-era rule that directs the Defense Department to favor American-made food and textile products, has been eroded by trends in manufacturing that have sent many plants overseas.

“We’re saying the law is pretty clear, so follow the law,” Matt LeBretton, vice president of public affairs for New Balance, said in a phone interview. “There is a pride piece here, too. Our soldiers should be wearing goods that were made in the U.S.”

Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to comment on how much the military spends on cash allowances for recruits. She referred the question to individual service units.

The Air Force spends about $3.9 million on vouchers a year, said a spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley. Its roughly 30,000 recruits get $75 each year for sneakers that can be redeemed for the product of their choice at military-exchange stores. Female recruits get about $275 more in vouchers for pumps, underwear, stockings and purses when they enter basic training, she said.

The Army provides similar cash allowances, according to data from Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman. It decided to issue cash allowances for recruits’ running shoes and women’s underwear because of the wide range of sizes and needs, Hall said.

Fit aside, the Defense Department should seek the best value for everything it buys, as long as it’s not of strategic importance, said Stephen Bronars, a senior economist at Welch Consulting in Washington.

That is especially important as the Pentagon absorbs automatic budget cuts, he said. Defense officials must cut $37 billion in spending through Sept. 30 under a process known as sequestration.

“The bottom line is cost has got to be the No. 1 concern,” Bronars said in a phone interview.

For sneakers alone, closely held New Balance has estimated the military issues about $15 million in vouchers annually, assuming there are 225,000 to 250,000 recruits a year.

New Balance, founded in 1906 by William Riley, had revenue of $2.4 billion last year, LeBretton said.

The company has more people making footwear in the U.S. than ever, he said. Even so, it has also expanded overseas production as demand has increased.

About a quarter of New Balance’s shoes sold in North America come from U.S. factories, LeBretton said. The remainder are made in countries including Britain, China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

New Balance teamed up with other shoemakers, such as Rockford, Mich.-based Wolverine World Wide, that could also produce 100-percent American-made shoes, to lobby Congress over the military footwear measure.

The requirement was included in an amendment to the defense spending bill, which passed June 14. Sponsored by Michaud and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., the measure must clear the Senate and win President Obama’s approval to become law.

Some senators already have pressed the sneaker issue. At least 15 senators, including Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wrote to Obama in April to urge him to direct the Defense Department to buy American-made athletic shoes for entry-level recruits.

“American workers can meet the footwear requirements of nearly all our service members if you simply give them this opportunity,” they said in the April letter.

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