On ‘Buy American’ visit, Biden spotlights Pa. manufacturing

Julia Terruso and Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer

MACUNGIE TOWNSHIP, Pa. — President Joe Biden came here Wednesday to a sprawling Mack truck plant in the Lehigh Valley to unveil a plan to pump more federal dollars into American products, like the red, white and blue trucks lined up beside his podium.

“Today we’re going to make the biggest enforcement changes in ‘Buy America’ in 70 years,” Biden told about 130 employees, supporters and elected officials gathered inside the one-million square-foot facility.

Biden’s proposal is to boost American manufacturing by upping the threshold for what products qualify as American “enough” for the federal government to buy.

Currently, the federal government has to spend tax dollars on products made in the U.S., but that includes products built with just 55% American components. The new proposal would gradually ramp that up to 75%. Companies would also have to provide proof their products are American-made rather than just sign off that they’ve met the threshold, Biden said.

“We got a new sheriff in town,” the president said, jacketless, after touring the plant, which builds the cabs, frames and engines for every Mack truck in North America. “Substantial is gonna mean substantial.”

Time to adjust: The increase would be gradual, starting immediately at 60% and rising to 75% by 2029 to allow businesses time to adjust and boost use of American-made parts.

The government spends about $600 billion a year, about half to buy products. That includes about 1,500 Mack trucks used by military and civilian agencies.

The visit came as the Senate appeared to reach a bipartisan agreement on Biden’s infrastructure bill, something he learned about while touring the building.

He seemed particularly upbeat, jogging to the podium for the speech, removing his jacket and joking at the top of his remarks that he was only there to drive a truck.

Ahead of his visit, Republicans said Biden and his policies have hurt manufacturers, blaming the president for rising inflation, businesses’ struggles to find workers, and his decision on his first day in office to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“Every manufacturer needs energy, usually in massive volume, and energy production means jobs,” said Bernadette Comfort, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. But Biden’s “anti-energy” policies “are a problem for manufacturers who need reliable and affordable energy, she said, and also for families” that rely on the jobs in those industries.

Comfort argued that his latest major proposal, a massive infrastructure program, would only add to the country’s rising inflation.

“On Biden’s watch the money in your pocket and my pocket is worth less and less by the day,” she said. “Now we’re considering more reckless spending. Now’s not the time for that.”

Inflation concerns: Recent inflation has outstripped wage gains as the economy returns toward normalcy, and June saw the biggest jump in consumer prices in 13 years.

The White House, and many economists, argue that the spike in inflation is temporary and likely to settle down, saying it’s being caused by unique factors around the pandemic.

Part of the reason for price increases is that current costs are being measured against prices from last summer, in the midst of the pandemic-enforced economic shutdown. Economists and the Federal Reserve also blame a temporary shortage in supply chains, after months of decreased economic activity, while demand leaps.

But Republicans also point to experts who had warned that Biden’s nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan could overheat the economy.

At the plant on Wednesday, Biden saw where the huge truck cabs are loaded into frames. He also got a look at a new electric garbage truck as local workers took him around.

The Lehigh Valley is a critical swing region and outside the warehouse, dozens of supporters of former President Donald Trump lined one side of a street while backers of Biden lined the other. One woman held a “Macun­gie Welcomes Biden” sign feet away from a man with a “Trump 2020 flag. At one point, police pushed both groups away from the factory, corralling them into close proximity and leading to some yelling and exchanges of expletives.

This was the second presidential visit in a little over a year to the Allentown area for a talk about manufacturing.

In May 2020, Trump visited PPE-maker Owens & Minor in Upper Macungie to tout the opportunity for the pandemic to boost American manufacturing through government contracts.

Politically, buying American is a rallying call both parties have tried to claim, as they appeal to union workers and a more broad swath of people in rural and exurban parts of swing states like Pennsylvania where manufacturing and factories once ruled.

Today less than 10% of the labor force works in factories.

But the need to boost that became evident during the pandemic, with shortages in PPE and health and medical equipment.

It’s also an issue in the tech sector, where the U.S. is heavily dependent on China and Taiwan for micro computer chips used in computers, phones and Mack truck engines.