By: Austin Wright – reposted from Politico
September 30, 2013 05:06 AM EDT
Domestic shoemakers are going toe to toe with the Pentagon over its footwear policies.
New Balance is leading a charge to force the military to buy U.S.-made running shoes for recruits, meeting with members of Congress and the Obama administration to press its case.
The company sees a $50 million opportunity in a population for which running is mandatory — and a cause that might be difficult for any flag-waving politician to oppose.
The military sees a regulatory headache.
The issue is significant for the Pentagon, which today allows the services to decide for themselves how best to buy running shoes. But a provision making its way through Congress could lead to a militarywide shoe policy — and another example of the transfer of power from the services to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which has expanded in recent years despite pledges to downsize by leaders past and present.
“We tend to grow by congressional fiat,” said one Pentagon official, requesting not to be identified to offer a candid take.
The standoff with shoemakers is also significant for the Defense Department because of the industry’s aggressive public relations push. Defense officials are accustomed to dealing with often deferential contractors, which depend on the Pentagon for a substantial portion of their sales and rarely disagree with the brass in public.
With New Balance, however, the shoe is on the other foot.
“We have not been quiet about our desire to see the department follow its own rules,” said company spokesman Matt LeBretton, referring to a 1941 statute called the Berry Amendment that requires the Pentagon to buy food, clothing and other items from producers inside the United States.
“Soldiers don’t have a choice for most of the gear that they’re given, so I don’t know why it would be different for athletic footwear,” LeBretton said. “The administration talks a lot about supporting domestic manufacturing — here’s an opportunity to do it.”
Each of the services has a different policy for equipping recruits with running shoes as they enter boot camp. The Army, for example, provides soldiers a one-time cash allowance to buy shoes from military exchanges, which stock a number of brands.
Men are given $75 for shoes and white socks, and women are given $347 for shoes, socks, black dress pumps, stockings, underwear and a black purse. The brass says it’s easier to handle this kind of purchase this way.
“For the Army to maintain those items in inventory, it would have to be quite a large inventory,” said Army spokesman Wayne Hall.
The Air Force, meanwhile, gives recruits $75 to purchase athletic shoes, also at military exchanges, following foot exams to determine the right brand and fit. The service spends about $2.3 million on the program each year, according to Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley.
Domestic shoemakers — and their allies on Capitol Hill — consider these policies a violation of the Berry Amendment because recruits are allowed to pick brands such as Nike, which produces most of its shoes outside the U.S.
Their message: Follow the lead of the Navy, which provides recruits only one brand option: New Balance.
The company was selected in part because its shoes “are assembled in the U.S.,” said Kristine Sturkie, a spokeswoman for the Navy Exchange Service Command. The service spent about $3 million last fiscal year to equip about 41,490 recruits with New Balance running shoes, she said.
A provision in the House version of this year’s defense authorization bill would force all the services to adopt a policy similar to the Navy’s — requiring military recruits to be equipped with U.S.-made shoes as they enter boot camp. The bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate before the end of the year.
The measure, championed by Democratic Reps. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and Michael Michaud of Maine, would take effect only once the Pentagon certifies there are two suppliers capable of producing shoes compliant with the requirements of the Berry Amendment.
“Innovative companies, such as New Balance right here in Massachusetts, are able to provide our service members with quality products and keep business here on American soil,” Tsongas said in a statement. “It is time for the Department of Defense to treat athletic footwear like every other uniform item, including boots, and buy them from American manufacturers.”
LeBretton said New Balance doesn’t produce Berry-compliant shoes today; it uses some foreign-made materials. But he said New Balance and at least one other company could produce shoes made from start to finish in the United States — if there was a military-scale demand for them.
“The ‘Field of Dreams’ analogy applies,” he said. “If you build it, they will come.”
And Steve Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said his group has been lobbying hard to get the Tsongas provision included in the final version of this year’s defense authorization bill.
“We’ve been talking to folks in both the House and the Senate to urge them to include this in the final package,” Lamar said. “It’s important, and obviously for the firms involved it’s a huge economic impact.”
To learn more about Made in USA Certification: www.USA-C.com