Congressman David Cicilline has made reviving Rhode Island's ailing manufacturing sector a central focus of his brief Washington career. And his push has dovetailed nicely with the Democratic leadership's "Make it in America" agenda, which calls for a national manufacturing strategy and tax policy that incentivizes "insourcing" over than "outsourcing."
But House Democrats, of course, have been unable to get much done with Republicans in charge of the chamber. And there are signs now that manufacturing, once a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy, is struggling. This week, the Institute for Supply Management reported that its monthly manufacturing index fell to 49.7 in June, down from 53.5 in May. Anything under 50 indicates contraction.
Today, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer was in Rhode Island highlighting Congressman Jim Langevin's work on job training and Congressman Cicilline's work on manufacturing. I asked him if the nation's modest industrial renaissance had come and gone. And I asked whether a divided government could really deliver on manufacturing policy.
Hoyer was optimistic on both fronts. He insisted that the manufacturing slowdown is a temporary one. And while he was plenty critical of the GOP - blaming it for "gridlock" in Washington - he pointed out that the two parties had come together in recent months on patent reform and reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which helps to boost US exports.
But if that legislation offers some hope for bi-partisan action in the next couple of years, there is reason to be skeptical about Washington's ability to put forth any serious industrial policy. The two sides, after all, remain far apart on most proposals; Congressman Cicilline's push for a block grant that would allow old-line manufacturers to retool and retrain, for instance, will go nowhere if the GOP has any say.
And if Democrats are making optimistic statements about their chances to take the House - Hoyer told me the odds were "no worse than 50/50" - handicappers aren't quite so sanguine.
Stuart Rothenberg, a respected non-partisan analyst in Washington recently wrote that "Republicans remain solid favorites to retain control of the House in November’s elections":
Democratic retirements and some weaker than expected candidates in
places like California and Pennsylvania have limited the party’s upside
potential, forcing Democrats to defeat nearly two dozen GOP incumbents
if they are going to net enough seats to re-install House Minority
Leader Nancy Pelosi as the next speaker.
Similarly, the Cook Political Report recently revised its forecast for the coming election from a Democratic pick-up of five to 15 seats in the House to a minimal change: from two GOP pick-ups to eight for Democrats.
Democrats need to gain 25 seats to win the House.
Of course, even if Dems take control, there's reason to doubt that a robust industrial policy would have significant impact on a complex, global market for manufactured goods - never mind a small, struggling state like Rhode Island that has lagged its New England neighbors in creating the kind of high-tech, "advanced manufacturing" that drove the nation's recent industrial revival.
But manufacturing is a major force in the local economy; it is the fourth-largest private-sector employer in the state. And as I argued in my March cover story for the Phoenix "Can Manufacturing Save Rhode Island's Economy?," reviving industry may be the last, best hope for the state - however long the odds.