For Jamie Gregg, president, chief executive officer and owner of Colonial Bronze Co., a Torrington manufacturer of door handle pulls, knobs and other products, the road to a federal law expanding Buy American rules began a decade ago with an unusual phone call.

A staffer for then-U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy asked, “Do you guys make towel bars?” he recalled in a recent interview.

“That’s an odd question coming from a congressman’s office,” he said.

Gregg, the third-generation owner of the 94-year-old family business, said he told Murphy’s office Colonial Bronze does make towel bars.

Murphy, who has since been elected and reelected to the U.S. Senate, questioned why the Pentagon would seek waivers to avoid buying American-made towel bars for Air Force barracks in Alaska, Gregg said. His office looked for a Connecticut company that filled the bill.

In November, President Joe Biden signed into law a massive infrastructure measure that includes legislation strengthening Buy American provisions. It’s been championed by Murphy, a Democrat, and was backed by others who represent states with manufacturing sectors: Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; and Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

The law will establish an online hub to increase transparency and ensure federal agencies make a priority of buying American-made goods in compliance with laws already on the books. The legislation also will give manufacturers the chance to challenge pending waivers sought by federal agencies.

It also codifies an executive order by then-President Donald Trump in 2017 requiring agencies to report on compliance with Buy American laws and how they’re implemented.

Using the $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation to incorporate Buy American legislation made sense because the manufacturing base is part of U.S. industry, Murphy said. “We took advantage of an opportunity,” he said.

In a video produced by his office, Murphy said the loss of government work by domestic manufacturers to overseas competitors with the use of U.S. taxpayer money “seemed crazy to me.”

Manufacturing in Connecticut, prized for its skilled and well-paid jobs, employs more than 155,000 workers, nearly 10% of the labor force, and accounts for about the same share of the state’s nearly $300 billion economy. Murphy has made promotion of manufacturing a visible part of his legislative career, going as far as seeking common ground with Trump for whom he said, with some understatement, he doesn’t have “much love.”

He said he got the idea for the Buy American law on a visit to Colonial Bronze. Gregg appeared on the senator’s video to endorse the new law, saying it’s “designed to level the playing field” between U.S. and foreign companies.

Critics of Buy American legislation say the federal government should engage with as many producers as possible to keep down costs. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said if the legislation is only a clearinghouse, “I’ll breathe a sigh of relief.”

“Buy American makes things more expensive,” he said. “You’re telling the government you can’t buy from the lowest-bid producer. You have to discriminate in favor of U.S. producers.”

Allison Schrager, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said Buy American policies subsidize uncompetitive business practices.

“It’s better to compete on global markets and make adjustments where you can,” she said.

Drezner said the politics of shuttered factories unable to compete globally are “brutal at times” and he acknowledged the need to buy domestically to protect national security. Still, Buy American rules are an “ineffective use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

And if politicians detail the true cost of protecting domestic manufacturing, Buy American might lose public support, he said. An admission that taxes will increase to support the purchase of higher-priced goods to keep jobs might lead Americans to “react differently,” Drezner said.

Murphy said the law empowers the private sector.

“All we’re doing is providing information in an easy to find way and leave it up to manufacturers to take advantage of this website,” he said.

Buy American could become more expansive, however. Murphy said one idea he’s considering is to raise the minimum percentage of U.S. content to 60% from 50% “to get rid of some of the waivers that are often abused.”

Supply shortages in the early months of the pandemic “led to an awakening in Congress,” boosting bipartisan support for stronger Buy American rules, he said.

Drezner blamed the shortages on U.S. policies allowing reserves of personal protective equipment to atrophy and said government must build up supplies.

Meanwhile, Gregg said the Buy American website will be useful. Customer service representatives will scan it to determine if federal agencies are seeking waivers and will seize opportunities to make pitches for the products being purchased.

“This at least gives us an opportunity to articulate and fight for our position why you should buy this,” he said.

Colonial Bronze, which employs 43 workers, has persevered by manufacturing customized, specialty products sold to designers and interior architects. It’s remained in business long after competitors dropped out as the low-cost business structure of big box stores doing business with China took hold, Gregg said.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do that so I stuck it out,” he said.

As for the towel bars in the Air Force barracks in Alaska, Gregg said he never got the chance to make the sale to the Pentagon.

“That ship already sailed,” he said.

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