Trump Travels To Wisconsin To Tout 'Buy American, Hire American' Policy

Apr 18, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump visited a toolmaking plant in Wisconsin today. He used the Snap-on Tools factory in Kenosha as a backdrop while signing an executive order designed to strengthen the federal government's Buy American policies. Those are longstanding federal policies that favor domestic products. He's also proposing adjustments to a controversial guest worker program. We'll hear more about how industry is reacting to those proposed changes in a moment.

But first, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us to talk about the president's event today. Scott, the president has not done a lot of this kind of political travel during his first few months in office, going out into the country to promote his agenda. Why did he choose Wisconsin for this one?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, it's a swing state. It's a state that he carried by fewer than 23,000 votes in November. Kenosha County, where he was speaking today, was one of the closest in the state. But Wisconsin is also a state that relies very heavily on manufacturing. About 1 in 6 jobs in this state is a factory job. That's compared to about 1 in 11 nationwide. So this is an area that is potentially very hospitable to the pro-manufacturing message that the president was delivering.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are sending a powerful signal to the world. We're going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first.

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HORSLEY: And that starts, the president said, with the federal government's own spending. You know, the government buys a lot of stuff every year, and this executive order directs the government to give more preferential treatment to domestic manufacturers when spending taxpayer dollars.

SIEGEL: Buy American policies have been around for decades. What's changing here?

HORSLEY: You're right. They have been around since really the Roosevelt administration, and they were reinforced back in the '70s. But the Trump administration says they've been watered down over the years. And one way that has happened is through trade agreements that the U.S. now has with dozens of other countries that put foreign suppliers on an equal footing with American firms when it comes to supplying the federal government.

What's more, the Trump administration says that equal footing has not been reciprocated when American firms try to sell their products to foreign governments. So that's one of many criticisms the president has leveled against those kinds of trade deals. Right now, though, he's not looking to back out of the agreements. He's just asking the commerce secretary and the trade representative to take a closer look.

SIEGEL: Now, along with Buy American, the president campaigned on a platform of Hire American, and he's calling for a closer look at some guest worker programs that critics complain displace American workers. What can you tell us about that?

HORSLEY: Yeah, he's looking in particular at the H-1B visa program which is used mainly by technology companies to bring in workers. It's supposed to be to bring in people with specialized training and expertise that employers can't find here at home, but critics say too often it's used to hire workers with relatively run-of-the-mill technical backgrounds who simply displace American workers and do the job for less. So the order calls for closer scrutiny of who's using those visas and why.

SIEGEL: The H-1B visas - is he looking at any other guest worker programs?

HORSLEY: That's the only program that's singled out, but the order does call for a broader re-examination. And we might mention the president himself has used workers with a different kind of visa, H-2Bs, to staff his properties at places like Mar-a-Lago. During the campaign, Trump defended the use of those guest workers, saying it was hard to find Americans who would do that sort of seasonal work.

SIEGEL: OK, NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.