Democrats Milk Olympics Uniform Spat

Posted July 16, 2012 at 6:33pm

Senate Democrats hope the dispute over Chinese-made U.S. Olympic uniforms will continue to be a political boon.

It has not only brought attention to their push to promote domestic manufacturing, but has also led China’s government-run media to blast American lawmakers. But the Senators probably don’t mind the criticism.

The U.S. Olympic Committee and apparel maker Ralph Lauren have faced a public relations backlash since reports surfaced last week that the American athletes’ uniforms for the opening ceremonies were manufactured in China.

The outrage over the Olympic outfits could be a perfect segue to the Senate Democrats’ legislative priority of the week: a tax bill to provide incentives to bring jobs back from overseas. And the brouhaha is already helping Democrats up for re-election this year — such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) — highlight their insourcing initiatives.

Stabenow is the lead sponsor of the bill to give tax incentives for companies to move jobs to the United States, while punishing outsourcing. The measure, which could receive a vote this week, also gives Democrats another chance to criticize presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s business record at the private equity firm Bain Capital. And with the focus on Olympic uniforms, Romney could be criticized for the fact that berets for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, which Romney led, were made in Canada, according to published reports.

Brown, who faces a tough race, has been promoting an assortment of populist trade legislation, in addition to an Olympics uniform measure being led by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Brown’s stance on the Olympic uniform scandal has brought him highly desirable local news stories in which he and his proposals have been featured.

“We know how to make things in America, which is why it’s such an embarrassment that Chinese factories were used to manufacture Team USA’s uniforms. If awards were given out for breaking trade laws, China would win the gold medal,” Brown said late last week.

One of the Ohio lawmaker’s bills would require the federal government to use only American-made U.S. flags. He plans to unveil another measure designed to promote U.S. manufacturing on Wednesday, an aide said.

Menendez unveiled legislation on Monday that would direct the USOC to procure ceremonial uniforms that are assembled in the United States from domestic fabrics. The Menendez effort has the support of several Democrats, including Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

Schumer launched a late push to have replacement uniforms made by Hickey Freeman, a manufacturer in Rochester, N.Y.

That lawmakers would seek to intervene in an Olympic controversy should be no surprise. The Senate created the modern USOC in the late 1970s as part of an overhaul of amateur sports in America.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid helped flame the controversy last week when he said the USOC’s uniforms should be burned.

“I think they should take all of the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again,” the Nevada Democrat said.

The Chinese government news agency Xinhua responded to the controversy in a commentary, published Sunday, criticizing U.S. lawmakers for the attack. The commentary quoted what it called Reid’s “irresponsible words.”

Ralph Lauren announced Friday that the company would produce future Olympic ceremony uniforms in the United States, which Xinhua criticized as capitulation.

“By criticizing Ralph Lauren for outsourcing jobs, the politicians attempted to reap political gains by portraying themselves as a champion of insourcing U.S. jobs so as to attract greater support among U.S. voters,” the news agency wrote in an editorial.

Lawmakers such as Menendez praised Ralph Lauren’s move, but the New Jersey Democrat said he would move forward with his legislation.

“While I appreciate that commitment, I look forward to the quick passage of this patriotic jobs bill so that the United States never finds itself in this embarrassing situation again,” Menendez said.

Brown, Menendez, Schumer and others might be able to tout the criticism from Xinhua, if recently polling is any guide.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman released a poll Monday commissioned by the Alliance for American Manufacturing that signaled voter support for tough action on China’s trade policies.

“Voters clearly want to get tough with China,” Mellman said, before highlighting poll findings that suggested people had an unfavorable view of manufactured goods coming from China because of perceived safety risks.

Scott Paul, the executive director of the domestic manufacturing group, predicted that stories such as the Chinese-made Olympic uniforms would continue to attract attention.

Paul said to anticipate “even more of these types of shamings” as a way to promote change and further “Buy America” provisions to promote domestic manufacturing provisions.

 While Democrats have been most vocal in opposition of the Olympic uniforms being made in China, anti-China messaging has won bipartisan support in the Senate in the past.

Last fall, Senators easily passed a bill to give the Treasury Department tools to counteract Chinese currency manipulation. That measure passed 63-35 in October but has languished in the House, with apparent opposition from the White House as well.

Romney, on the other hand, said during the primary campaign that he would designate China as a currency manipulator.

Opponents of the China currency bill say that the measure could provoke an unintended trade war.