WASHINGTON — Maine’s New Balance factories — among the few athletic footwear manufacturing facilities left in the U.S. — received good news on two separate fronts last week with the help of the state’s congressional delegation.
In the House, Rep. Mike Michaud successfully amended an omnibus defense bill to require that the nation’s military equip new recruits with sneakers manufactured in the U.S. The armed forces already are required — under a 70-year-old law known as the Berry Act — to buy uniforms or other clothing only from U.S. sources. For the past decades, however, several branches of the military have been issuing vouchers to new recruits to allow them to pick out their own athletic shoes for training camp.
Michaud’s office said there are two footwear manufacturers in the U.S. — New Balance and Wolverine World Wide — capable of meeting the Berry Act requirements. The Senate is still working on its version of the defense bill.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s nominee to become the next U.S. trade ambassador, Michael Froman, promised Sen. Angus King that he would tour at least one of New Balance’s three factories in Maine.
The pledge came in response to King’s delaying — or “placing a hold on” — Senate consideration of Froman’s nomination. It also comes as the Obama administration is working out a new free-trade agreement with Pacific nations, called the Trans Pacific Partnership, that could result in the elimination of tariffs on sneakers made in Vietnam and other countries.
That concerns New Balance officials, who see the tariffs as a way to keep the playing field level with international companies that manufacture in countries with low labor costs.
Ron Kirk, who stepped down recently as U.S. trade representative, toured the New Balance facilities last year.
“Since August 2012, I have contacted the Office of the United States Trade Representative several times and have not felt that my concerns, on behalf of my constituents, have been taken seriously or appropriately addressed,” King wrote in a letter to Froman, explaining his delay tactic. “Although I was reluctant to place a hold on your nomination, I felt I had no other option to emphasize the strength of my conviction on these issues.”
New Balance employs roughly 900 people at factories in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway.
Maine’s members of Congress also have been involved in a fight about federal policy on the humble potato.
White potatoes are excluded from the list of fresh fruit and vegetables included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Commonly referred to as WIC, the program provides grants to states to provide more nutritious foods to low-income mothers and children.
Earlier this month, Sen. Susan Collins lost an effort on the Senate floor to amend the Farm Bill to reinstate potatoes on the WIC list. Collins, who hails from Maine’s potato-growing Aroostook County, was denied a vote on the amendment, a relatively common occurrence on larger bills in the Senate.
In the House, however, 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree worked with an Idaho congressman to amend an agriculture budget bill with language reinserting potatoes into WIC. The bill is headed to the full House for a vote.
Collins and other potato defenders contend that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is discriminating against fresh potatoes, versus the fried kind. The feds insist that Americans who utilize WIC already consume enough potatoes.
Craft brewers get involved
Meanwhile, one of Maine’s better-known craft brewers, Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, is getting involved in the issue of clean water.
Allagash is one of about 20 craft brewing operations around the country that joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council — a large environmental advocacy and legal group — on a letter to President Barack Obama urging his administration to move forward with stronger protection of drinking water sources.
The council and the brewers are upset about delays to proposed changes to the Clean Water Act that they contend would protect headwaters and some tributaries better. The group tried to appeal to Obama’s own affinity for small-batch beer, given that the White House brews its own.
“Like you, many of us started as home brewers. Like you, we learned the importance of the quality of each of the ingredients we used in our beer — water, hops, barley and yeast,” they wrote. “Perhaps none of those ingredients is more important than water, which makes up roughly 90 percent of any beer. Our businesses — which jointly employ more than 1,500 people — depend on the availability of a clean, reliable water supply.”