Buy America provision triggers rebuke

A one-sentence amendment benefiting domestic automakers quietly inserted into a $33 billion spending bill approved Friday has reverberated across the Atlantic, marking another flashpoint in the continuing "Buy America" debate.

The amendment to the fiscal 2010 Energy and Water Appropriations bill by Rep. Larry Kissell, D-N.C., stipulates that "none of the funds made available in this Act may be used to purchase passenger motor vehicles other than those manufactured by Ford, General Motors or Chrysler."

In specifically naming the Big Three automakers, the Kissell amendment goes even further than prior legislative attempts to carve out preferences for domestic firms. The move prompted a rebuke Tuesday from European Union Ambassador John Bruton, who called it a "troubling protectionist" provision.

"To ignore other American-made passenger vehicles and passenger vehicles manufactured by automakers outside of the U.S. is simply bad environmental policy, bad appropriations policy and bad economic policy," Bruton said in a statement.

A Kissell spokesperson was not available for comment. An Appropriations aide pointed out that the language does not change current law, and that it simply restates General Services Administration policy with regard to government automotive purchases.

The Kissell amendment was wrapped into a managers' package of mostly technical provisions by Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., and approved on a 261-172 vote Wednesday. The underlying bill was approved Friday on a 320-97 vote. Pastor managed the bill on the floor on behalf of Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., who has temporarily stepped down in the midst of an FBI investigation into dissolved lobbying firm PMA Group.

There was little debate on the provision, other than some general grumbling from Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., that Republicans were not consulted about the managers' package. Pastor apologized, telling Frelinghuysen he thought the minority was able to review the amendment beforehand.

Kissell, a former textile worker, won his seat last year by knocking off former Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., amid a wave of resentment over Bush administration trade policies. Kissell pushed through an amendment to this year's $787 billion economic stimulus requiring that Transportation Security Administration uniforms be made in the United States. North Carolina is also home to numerous auto dealerships that face hard times due to the Big Three's troubles.

In his statement, Bruton took the opportunity to pick a fight with another "Buy America"-type provision that recently passed the House: language in the energy and climate change bill directing money to U.S. automakers involved in developing and producing electric cars.

Bruton said the combined effect of the two provisions would run afoul of U.S. obligations under the World Trade Organization and contradict a stated commitment at the G-20 summit this year to oppose trade barriers. "It would send the wrong signal to all producers worldwide, which in turn could lead to similar protectionist measures adopted by other countries, hurting U.S. exports and delivering another blow to world trade at this critical juncture for the economy," he said.

The climate change bill is stalled in the Senate in part because of broader trade concerns. The House-passed bill contains provisions by Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, D-Mich., requiring the president to impose border taxes beginning in 2020 on goods from China, India and other developing countries if they do not agree to similar curbs on their emissions.

The goal, according to Levin and others, is to prevent "carbon leakage" where U.S. heavy industry migrates overseas in the face of strict environmental regulations. President Obama has come out against the provisions and Senate Democrats said they would like to scale them back as well, perhaps providing the administration more flexibility in its dealings with other nations.

On Tuesday, a group of nine New Democrats, led by the group's chairman, Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, wrote to Democratic leaders urging them to agree to changes. They noted rumblings from the French government that the European Union should impose similar border tariffs if no international agreement is reached this year.

"The U.S. must not provide a template to ignite a global trade war," the letter states. It goes on to say that tariffs should be "an option of last resort" and that the current language should be "stripped or substantially altered" in conference to give the president greater discretion.

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