California Congressman Duncan Hunter is an old and dear friend and someone who knows more about defense policy in this country than anyone else I know. That's why it amazes me that someone so knowledgeable can fall prey to the fallacies of protectionism, particularly when it involves the defense of our nation.
When he once took a baseball bat to a Japanese-made TV set on the Capitol steps, it was good political theater, but it illustrates how deeply ingrained his protectionist streak runs. But now, Hunter, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has gone beyond political vaudeville into the theater of the absurd. He inserted into the House Defense Authorization Bill a "buy-American" provision that not only would cut back by a third the so-called "foreign content" permitted in goods purchased by the military, but it also would create a long list of goods - such as machine tools, dies and industrial molds, and airplane tires - that must come exclusively from American firms. The provision also would establish a $100-million corporate welfare fund to subsidize American firms to produce "critical" military parts and supplies.
A potential unintended consequence of the provision might be that joint defense programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter that is being developed in partnership with Great Britain, would become impossible to do. The Pentagon is so concerned that the provision would cripple our ability to procure the best military equipment and systems on a timely basis that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has rightly recommended to the president that he veto the bill if it comes out of the House/Senate Conference Committee with the Hunter provision intact.
In times like this, emotions run high, and it is not unusual to see members of Congress resort to indirect means, such as a "buy-American" provision, to retaliate against countries that do not fully cooperate and support our foreign policy. Moreover, there is always a great temptation among members of Congress to succumb to the illusion that forcing the government to spend money exclusively on American-made goods will slow the decline in American manufacturing.