Friday, August 07, 2009

In U.S. Senate, Protectionism Takes Precedence Over Protecting Safety of Troops

It looks like Georgia will once again be ground zero in a battle over whether jobs take priority over efforts to keep U.S. citizens out of harm's way.

Back in 2002, a U.S. Senator from Georgia lost his Senate seat because he placed union interests ahead of national security interests in his votes on the formation of the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Now, another U.S. Senator from Georgia is working to ensure the safety of U.S. combat troops by extending a temporary importation agreement that would allow a fire-resistant rayon from Austria to continue to be used in the production of military uniforms (currently manufactured in Georgia).

Unfortunately, in the U.S. Senate, protectionism has taken precedence over protecting our soldiers:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. troops routinely face the threat of roadside bombs while fighting insurgencies in Afghanistan. They need the most protective clothing the market can bear, and they're getting it -- for now.

Back home, a battle is brewing in Congress over the next lucrative contract for military uniforms. The issue boils down to the raw fiber used in their construction.

Current uniforms are made in the United States, in Georgia, using a fabric called Defender M made by the TenCate company. It is favored by the military for its fire-resistant and breathable properties.

But the fabric is made with a type of rayon imported from Austria -- which normally would violate the military's buy-American requirement.

This specific rayon cannot be produced in the United States for environmental reasons, so Congress passed an amendment allowing it to be temporarily imported. The extension expires, or "sunsets," in 2013, but that year's defense budget is being determined now. The idea of the sunset is to give U.S. manufactures time to come up with a comparable product.

At stake: a defense contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

American competitors have submitted alternatives, but so far, independent testing conducted at the North Carolina State University College of Textiles indicates TenCate's Defender M -- with its foreign-made fibers -- is the most flame-resistant.

Dr. Roger Barker, who specializes in clothing flammability at the College of Textiles, conducted a demonstration for CNN, and Barker says Defender M resists fire the longest of other fabrics.

"What the new heat-resistant materials are able to do is add seconds of protection, so that seconds of protection can be the difference between a severe burn or a survival burn," Barker said.

"Life and death," echoes Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, regarding those extra seconds of fire protection. He asked the Senate to extend the waiver.

"So long as it's the best available in the world to protect our soldiers, we absolutely ought to maximize the use," Isakson told CNN.

"There is no American competitor that can meet or exceed it," Isakson said on the Senate floor. "Obviously if there were, then that waiver would go away."

The U.S. Army's uniform procurer says soldiers prefer TenCate's product.

"They have consistently exceeded our expectations. This has proven to be a valuable fabric and well-received by our soldiers," Jeff Myhre told CNN.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, opposed Isakson's amendment, debating on the Senate floor that it "permanently extends this waiver and will end all efforts to produce a domestic material to make military uniforms."

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, agrees with Graham that U.S. companies won't have an incentive to invest in research and development. He says the exception was supposed to be temporary, and "favors foreign suppliers of rayon over our own American companies."

He argued on the Senate floor that in due time, U.S. companies would be able to demonstrate an ability to manufacture materials that meet Army requirements. He's also worried about jobs.

I wouldn't want to be a Senator running for re-election in Virginia or South Carolina - both full of active military personnel and military retirees - should any of our soldiers be injured or killed because a less-effective product was used to manufacture their uniforms.

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