Business Forum: We told Congress it’s time for bipartisan manufacturing agenda

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Frustrated — if you’re looking for one word to describe how most voters feel about Congress this election cycle, that’s probably the word many of them would use.

Outside of the deal that reopened the federal government after a 16-day standoff between the House and the Senate last fall, voters have seen little action from their representatives in Washington.

We admit that sometimes it’s hard not to just throw up our hands and walk away.

But as leaders in the manufacturing and metals trade industry — which, according to a recent study commissioned by the Metals Service Center Institute, is responsible for 229,905 jobs in Pennsylvania and more than $15 billion in wages — we cannot abdicate our responsibilities to our employees, our customers and our consumers.

That’s why we traveled to Washington last month where we met with many members of the Pennsylvania delegation to discuss the issues faced by our industry and U.S. job creators in general. We told our leaders to lead on a bipartisan agenda that addresses:

Currency manipulation. We believe enhanced trade benefits U.S. workers by raising incomes and creating jobs. However, we lose the positive effects of free trade agreements if they do not address currency manipulation where it exists. According to the Economic Policy Institute, ending currency manipulation by countries like China could add as many as 5.8 million jobs to our economy over the next three years alone.

Leaders in both parties have insisted that strong provisions to address manipulation are included in a trade pact currently under negotiation with several Asian nations, including Japan. We stand for free trade — but we also stand with those who call for these measures.

Tax reform. Amazingly, there is agreement in Washington on the need to lower our federal corporate tax rate, which is currently the highest rate in the world. We support this change, but also argued that tax reform must be comprehensive in nature.

The vast majority of U.S. businesses — more than 90 percent — pay their taxes through the same individual system that families pay. If we want our small businesses to remain competitive, Congress must consider lowering individual tax rates, too.

Regulatory and energy policy. The Obama administration this year has announced two draft regulations that will require new and existing power plants to significantly curb carbon emissions. These rules would impose a broad new energy tax on American businesses and families. For example, according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, higher energy costs resulting from the rules would reduce the average family’s take-home pay by $3,400.

Pennsylvania families just can’t afford more hits to their bottom line. Many experts also believe these new regulations will lead to energy rationing and unreliable energy supplies. The increased costs of doing business will mean fewer dollars to create new jobs (it’s estimated the rules will cut employment by about a quarter-million jobs a year) and provide benefits for our employees.

To keep costs affordable and increase our energy independence, the United States must also continue to pursue an all-of-the-above energy strategy that allows for approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline and more natural gas exploration.

Workforce challenges. Our unemployment rate is still stubbornly high, even though the number of people in the workforce is at a generational low. Our education system does not adequately prepare our students — future employees — for work in a 21st century economy, so it’s no surprise U.S. manufacturers struggle to find qualified workers.

Congress must reform our education and training programs to better respond to manufacturers’ needs. This skills gap costs our industry 11 percent of its net earnings, limiting resources to serve our customers. Addressing workforce challenges also means passing a comprehensive immigration reform package that ensures our legal immigration system reflects job creators’ needs.

Too many in the manufacturing community watch Washington’s paralytic performance in astonishment. We cannot let paralysis in Washington breed apathy in us or in our employees. These issues matter — Congress needs to know we’re watching and that we expect action.

Too many jobs — and too many livelihoods — hang in the balance to remain silent.

Lee Kushman is vice president and general manager of Pennsylvania Steel Co. in Lancaster, Pa., and Bob Weidner is president and CEO of the Metals Service Center Institute.

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