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U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is hoping to encourage the Defense Department to award more contracts to American manufacturers by requiring it to consider domestic employment as a factor in the bidding process.

Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal announced the legislation at a Friday press conference in Hartford at the Legislative Office Building.

“We should have a simple rule in this country — that when we purchase things for the U.S. government, in particular the United States military, that we should give preference to U.S. companies and that has not been the case historically,” he said.

Murphy said his legislation differs from the 1933 Buy American Act, which requires that a company awarded a defense contract build half the project’s components in the states. The new bill would come into play sooner, as foreign and domestic companies are competing for a contract. Murphy said that currently the military is not permitted to consider a project’s employment impact as it weighs bids for a project.

Murphy pointed to a bidding competition five years ago when the Air Force awarded a contract for a refueling aircraft to a company offering to make a European-manufactured aircraft over an U.S.-based aircraft, even though the two bids were essentially equal. He said the project would have created jobs at Pratt & Whitney, so the Connecticut congressional delegation questioned Air Force officials.

“Why on earth, if the two bids were essentially tied, would you give the work to a foreign company? And they said ‘because we are prohibited by federal law from giving an advantage to an American company because of their jobs content.’ The American Jobs Matter Act changes that,” he said.

The bill comes on the heels of news that Connecticut-based aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky would be laying off about 200 people, with the majority being employees in Connecticut.

“Sikorsky continues to look to a promising future, but today we face difficult challenges. U.S. and international government budgets are shrinking, our costs to compete are increasing, and many customers are delaying purchase decisions amid the economic uncertainty,” Sikorsky Communications Director Paul Jackson said in a statement. “Given all this, we must do all we can to protect our competitiveness while continuing to invest in our future.”

Murphy said he expects that the federal defense budget will continue to grow smaller in the coming years. But he said his bill is designed to help protect jobs throughout those spending reductions.

“As we shrink the defense budget, the only way we are going to preserve defense jobs here in Connecticut is by making sure that a bigger slice of a shrinking pie is spent on American jobs,” he said.

Blumenthal said the employment impact of a contract would not be the primary factor in determining what company is awarded a bid. He said the cost and quality of a bid would still be the predominant concerns.

“Connecticut does just fine when it comes to cost and quality,” he said, pointing to Connecticut-based projects funded under the most recent defense budget. Those include projects at Pratt & Whitney, Electric Boat, and Sikorsky. “These dollars go to defense contractors in Connecticut because of cost and quality,” Blumenthal said. 

However, Blumenthal said that some countries subsidize their defense contractors, putting U.S. manufacturers at an unfair disadvantage.

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Karen Blanchard (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Karen Blanchard, an electronic repair technician at UTC Aerospace Systems, formerly known as Hamilton Sundstrand, said she has watched the membership of her union dwindle over the 25 years she has worked at the company.

“At Hamilton there’s a big gaping hole in the middle of our factory where our machinists and our sheet metal technicians used to use their considerable skills to craft parts for U.S.-made aircraft. These layoffs are happening because our work is being outsourced and a lot of this work is taxpayer funded military work,” she said.

Murphy said he did not blame the companies for layoffs, since they are under enormous pressure from the government to deliver projects at a low cost. He said he blamed federal law, which stacks the rules against American workers and encourages manufacturers to look for cheaper suppliers outside the U.S.

Murphy said he’s hopeful his bill will receive bipartisan support in Congress. But he said there is some opposition to it by members who strictly support free trade and others who care most about the bottom line of the defense budget. He said big defense contractors also oppose the bill because they want the flexibility to move jobs around the world to maximize profit.

He said members of Congress and the president need to understand the “holistic costs” of buying goods from overseas.

“You might save a little bit of money in the Department of Defense but it will cost you infinitely more throughout the rest of the government,” he said.

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