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Flatware gets its day in NDAA

House amendment would require Defense Department to buy from domestic manufacturers

Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s amendment is aimed at a flatware manufacturer in his upstate New York district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s amendment is aimed at a flatware manufacturer in his upstate New York district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the House slogs through more than 400 amendments to the annual Pentagon policy bill, debate has centered on the deployment of U.S. troops to the southern border, a potential ban on some lower-yield nuclear weapons, war authorizations and … flatware.

Yes, flatware. Cutlery. Knives and forks and spoons. One of the 439 amendments put forth would require the Defense Department to buy “stainless steel flatware” and “dinner ware” from domestic, rather than foreign, manufacturers.

The amendment, sponsored by New York Democrat Anthony Brindisi and West Virginia Republican David B. McKinley, was approved 243-187 on Thursday. If the amendment survives Senate negotiations on the bill and is signed into law, it would restore a clause of the Berry Amendment, a recurring feature in defense authorizations that was permanently codified in 2002.

It also would be a parochial win for the amendments’ sponsors — something that, prior to the 2011 ban, would have been labeled a backdoor earmark.

Oneida County’s Sherrill Manufacturing, the last Made-in-the-U.S.A. flatware company, is in Brindisi’s district. And McKinley’s district is home to the Homer Laughlin China Company, which manufactures Fiesta dinnerware, one of the few domestic producers of plates and bowls.

The Berry Amendment restricts Defense Department procurement to domestically manufactured goods in many cases, including the purchase of food, textiles and footwear. Until 2006, according to Brindisi, it also extended to flatware, a requirement that was only removed due to a temporary failure in domestic flatware supply.

“This amendment would support American manufacturers, ensure our service members are using safe flatware and dinnerware, and leaves the Department of Defense flexibility should American-made flatware not be available or affordable,” Brindisi said.

A 2018 Congressional Research Service report on the Berry Amendment and the related Kissell Amendment, which deals with the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged the debate surrounding amendments like this one.

“Their supporters argue they help preserve the U.S. industrial base and create domestic manufacturing jobs,” the report stated. “Opponents believe the laws give monopolies to certain companies and raise the government’s procurement costs.”

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House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry is one such opponent.

“I have yet to hear a national security justification to dictate where DOD buys its knives and forks and spoons and plates,” the Texas Republican said. “Adding this mandate will hurt our troops.”

Similar amendments had been proposed to earlier authorization bills by McKinley and former New York GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney, whom Brindisi defeated in November. Thornberry, the Armed Services chairman at the time, opposed those amendments then.

“Creating domestic jobs in industry after industry is not the primary purpose of the Department of Defense, especially without a national security reason to do so,” he said Wednesday night.

The debate over the Berry Amendment isn’t limited to cutlery.

In 2013 and 2014, a similar debate, spearheaded by former Democratic Reps. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and Michael H. Michaud of Maine, raged over what brand of athletic shoes service members should wear. Tsongas and Michaud eventually won, to the benefit of Boston-based shoemaker New Balance, which has factories in both Maine and Massachusetts.

Now, Sherrill Manufacturing could reap a similar benefit, which could make all the difference in 2020. Brindisi won his seat by less than 2 points last fall, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his reelection a Toss-up.

The amendment might not make or break Brindisi’s future prospects, but an influx of pork barrel-by-proxy spending certainly won’t hurt the freshman Democrat.

Still, not all members are happy with the change.

“If we’re going to say OK, DOD has got to buy their plates and cups and knives and forks and spoons from a domestic supplier in my district, what about the napkins? Where does it stop?” Thornberry said. “I don’t think that we want to go down this road without a clear national security reason.”