On Tuesday, at the Snap-on tool company in Kenosha, Wisconsin, President Trump stood before an American flag rendered in wrenches and signed a new executive order based on his campaign and inauguration-speech pledge to “buy American and hire American.” The signing ceremony followed a speech about the importance of American manufacturing in which Trump hit some familiar notes, rehashing his narrow election victory as well as promising to “get rid of NAFTA” and saying it’s “ridiculous” that doing so requires him to involve Congress.
But the emotional climax of the speech was his call to end what he dubbed the “theft of American prosperity” by outside forces. This is what the executive order was intended to thwart, by requiring that all of the federal government’s departments “buy American.” (The other half of the order’s mandate is “hire American,” which involves among other things restricting H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers.)
Here’s what “buy American” means in practice: The U.S. government contracts out nearly half a trillion dollars of work per year, putting out requests for firms to provide things like construction, IT support, and countless other services the government doesn’t do for itself. Except in certain cases like sensitive defense work, both American firms and foreign ones bid on these contracts, competing to name the lowest price and deliver the best results. As a result, the federal government gets to make use of private firms’ capacity and expertise at, theoretically, the most competitive market rate. But under the new executive order, foreign firms won’t be in contention. Only domestic firms will be eligible to win these contracts.