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Scrap special ‘running shoe’ earmark

Shutterstock/Olga Popova

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017 runs to nearly 1,300 pages and 700 separate sections — a vast jungle of legislative text in which a bit of corporate welfare can be easily squirreled away. So when the House of Representatives voted this month to pass the massive bill and send it to the Senate, chances are that Section 808 wasn’t uppermost in most members’ thoughts. But that provision is a good illustration of how Washington operates to benefit narrow interests. It should be scrapped before the legislation goes any further.

Section 808 would abolish the longstanding policy of giving new military recruits a cash allowance with which to purchase their own athletic shoes. Enlisted personnel would be compelled instead to wear only made-in-America footwear, which would be issued to them by the Defense Department. The provision amounts to a highly lucrative earmark for a single corporation — Boston-based New Balance, which just happens to be the only major footwear company selling domestically manufactured running shoes suitable for military service members.

Under a federal mandate dating back to the 1940s, a law known as the Berry Amendment, food, clothing, and tools purchased by the Pentagon must, whenever feasible, be “grown, reprocessed, reused, or produced in the United States.” The wisdom of the Berry Amendment is debatable; economists agree that such protectionist measures tend to drive up costs and impede economic growth. But there is no denying the political appeal of channeling military dollars to American vendors and manufacturers.

Fortunately, the made-in-the-USA requirement is not absolutely inflexible. It can be waived when items required by the military “cannot be acquired . . . in a satisfactory quality and sufficient quantity.” That waiver has always applied to running shoes — the overwhelming majority of which are imported from abroad — for the sensible reason that foot types vary widely, and the comfort and fit of sneakers depend on each individual’s physiology and running style. As it is, observes George Mason University analyst Veronique de Rugy, the Pentagon spends an estimated $100 million annually to treat injuries to new recruits, and the bulk of those injuries are to the lower extremities.

Until now, New Balance has been one of several providers of athletic footwear to the military, along with Asics and Brooks. If Section 808 takes effect, it will be the only provider — and would reap a windfall of at least $50 million in military contracts over the next four years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Naturally, the company, a New England stalwart, is interested in this potential business; it has understandably lobbied hard and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to end the Berry Amendment waiver for running shoes. Its chief allies in Congress, Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and Bruce Poliquin of Maine, represent two districts where New Balance facilities operate, and their willingness to support a corporate constituent is also not hard to understand.


But there’s a more important principle at stake: support for the well-being of the young men and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. They should not be deprived of the ability to choose the running shoes best suited to minimize injuries just because one well-connected corporation wants to cut out its competition and gain a monopoly on military posts. The New Balance provision is the kind of special-interest earmark that fuels Americans’ distaste for Congress. Corporate welfare has no place in a spending bill — certainly not in one that provides for the national defense. As the bill moves to the Senate, Section 808 deserves to be spiked.