Congressman David Cicilline, who has faced a firestorm over his handling of the city budget as mayor of Providence, got a chance to change the subject today - holding a press event to formally introduce his "Make it in America" block grant proposal and to tout a broader, six-point plan to boost the state's manufacturing sector.
That broader plan includes, among other things, a national manufacturing strategy, a national infrastructure bank, and an attempt to crackdown on China's currency manipulation.
It will be next-to-impossible for Democrats to push this agenda through a Republican-controlled House. And there is plenty of skepticism around the country's ability to revive its manufacturing sector. But that sector is larger, and more important to the US economy, than most people realize. And it's particularly important in Rhode Island.
That makes it an issue of some political potency. Indeed, for all his troubles in recent months, Cicilline has been able to stake out a clearer jobs agenda - however fruitless it may wind up to be - than any member of the state's Congressional delegation. Enough to get him re-elected? Time will tell.
I had a brief Q&A with Cicilline after his event. It's edited for length.
Q: Among the things you're calling for is a national manufacturing strategy and I'm wondering if you can, in broad terms, sketch out what that might actually look like.
A: Most of the countries that we're competing with in the area of manufacturing have a well-developed manufacturing strategy. We need to develop one in this country. And that would bring together industrial leaders, labor leaders, other stakeholders to really develop a plan with appropriate benchmarks and goals so that we can measure our sucess. It's really just a way to highlight the importance of manufacturing in the rebuilding of our economy.
Q: How does this country overcome the structural problems of lower wages and lesser regulation overseas?
A: There is some manufacturing where that is particularly present that we aren't likely to keep here or get back - the very low-end, low-cost part of traditional manufacturing. But there is a tremendous opportunity in high-tech manufacturing. And we're seeing that as a place of tremendous growth. This is an opportunity to say, how do we invest in policies that support the growth of high-tech manufacturing that requires a more skilled worker and that really relies on innovation and entrepreneurship and the generation of new ideas?
Some of the manufacturing that was sent overseas for just the reasons you described is starting to come back because customers are unhappy with the timeliness of delivery and the quality of the products. And as wages begin to rise in places like China, this presents a real opportunity.
I think what this whole agenda, Make it in America, really articulates is what are the strategies and what are the policies we need to have in place to give American businesses and American manufacturers a fighting chance so that we're exporting American goods, not American jobs? One of them has to do with making sure other countries, our trading partners, are not cheating - currency manipulation, making sure we're enforcing our trade agreements, our intellectual property is being stolen by our trading partners.
Q: Manufacturing is often seen as a legacy industry. Do you find it difficult to sell this idea that we're still manufacturing to average voters or to your colleagues in Congress?
A: Yeah. I think this is one of the consequences of an economic policy for the last couple of decades in which lots of people thought, 'we're not manufacturers anymore in this country, we don't make stuff, we're going to create a service economy or some other economy.' And the truth is - this is where I think the American people are way ahead of the elected officials - I think the American people understood, long ago, that if we're going to remain a world economic power, that we have to make and produce things in this country.
There's no question that this [negative] attitude about manufacturing, which I think was pervasive for awhile in this country, has hurt our ability to understand that this is an important national priority. But I think it's starting to change.
Q: China seems to be leading even in the more complicated, clean-technology sector that we think we're targeting here.
A: That example is exactly why the Make it in America agenda is so critical. We developed the technology in some of the great universities of this country. And the Chinese recognized that, in addition to developing, manufacturing was the second part of that equation. And we didn't. And so, they have raced ahead in this area.
Q: Is there any danger here of raising the hopes of Rhode Islanders given that Democrats - yourself included - are in the minority in the House and it's going to be hard to get any of this through any time soon?
A: It'll be hard. I'm hopeful that this is an issue where we can actually find bi-partisan support and bi-partisan agreement. I don't think there's a Republican or a Democratic version of job creation or manufacturing. But you're right, it's a Republican Congress and the House leadership controls the agenda.