Lipinski Leads 20 House Members in Demanding the Census Bureau Explain Why it Spent Millions of Taxpayer Dollars on Goods from China and Other Foreign Countries

Today, Congressman Dan Lipinski (IL-3) led a bipartisan group of 20 members of the House of Representatives in sending a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Census Director Dr. Robert Groves demanding a detailed explanation of why the Census Bureau spent millions of taxpayer dollars on imported t-shirts, hats, and other promotional items when American manufacturing has lost 2.1 million jobs in under three years.

"For taxpayer dollars to wind up in the pockets of workers in China and Bangladesh when one in 10 Americans is out of work and Buy American laws have been on the books for decades is inexcusable," Congressman Lipinski said. "Adhering to both the letter and the spirit of the Buy American Act would undoubtedly create and sustain countless good-paying jobs in our struggling manufacturing sector. I firmly believe that in this instance - and in many, many others like it - an American manufacturer could have supplied the needed goods. Unfortunately, there's every reason to believe this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the federal government needlessly sending taxpayer dollars overseas."

The Census Bureau spent more than $4.3 million on imported t-shirts, shirts, and baseball caps bearing its logo as part of its $6.4 million "March to the Mailbox" campaign. While the printing was done in the United States, the apparel was manufactured in China, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. The purchases came to light last month when the Bureau sent a dozen boxes of the items to Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, who quickly alerted the public. Since then, it has been reported that boxes of Census promotional items received in Boston included miniature footballs, toy robots, t-shirts, and tape measures made in China and Honduras. While the Bureau has stated it spent a total of $42 million on 67 million promotional items, it remains unclear how much it spent on imported goods.

"We hope you will agree that it is our mutual obligation to make certain that taxpayer dollars are spent in a transparent, accountable, and legal manner," Congressman Lipinski states in the letter, which requests a meeting with Secretary Locke and Director Groves. "Domestic procurement requirements were legislated by Congress because they help create American jobs and support U.S. businesses, something that is especially important during the current recession. Receiving hats and t-shirts made in China or Bangladesh is an affront to the millions of Americans that are looking for work, and could lead to unfavorable views of the Census Bureau, perhaps even leading to lower response rates."

Congressman Lipinski has been seeking answers from the Census Bureau for more than a month, but the Bureau's shifting and incomplete responses have raised as many questions as they have answered. Publicly available information and statements suggest there may be systemic problems with how the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department as a whole track procurements and comply with the law. For instance, in its annual procurement reports to Congress the Commerce Department appears to be simply exempting many imported goods from Buy American Act coverage instead of seeking waivers for individual purchases. By avoiding the waiver process, the Department can avoid telling Congress what products it purchased from foreign sources and how much it spent on particular imported products. This means there is no way for American companies to challenge improperly granted waivers or alert the Department of their ability to manufacture a given product.

Congressman Lipinski has been a leader in the effort to ensure the federal government purchases domestically whenever possible. He recently introduced the Buy American Improvement Act, H.R. 4351, to eliminate loopholes in existing Buy American laws. The bill has been endorsed by the Populist Caucus and introduced in the Senate by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.

Joining Congressman Lipinski in signing the letter were Reps. Mark Schauer, Phil Hare, Marcy Kaptur, Michael Michaud, Carol Shea-Porter, Alcee Hastings, Dale E. Kildee, Larry Kissell, Linda T. Sanchez, Betty Sutton, Walter B. Jones, Bruce Braley, Stephen F. Lynch, Peter J. Visclosky, Christopher S. Murphy, Jerry Costello, Nick J. Rahall II, Heath Shuler, and Charlie Wilson.

Click here to view a copy of the letter.

(May 20, 2010)