Brookings on Cicilline's Manufacturing Strategy

Congressman David Cicilline's "Make it in America" block grant proposal, which would provide old-line manufacturers with grants to retool, retrain, and modernize, has largely been viewed through a political lens until now. It was featured in a campaign ad in 2010; the proposal has an obvious appeal to voters living through a punishing recession; and given Cicilline's position as a freshman Congressman in the minority party, the measure has had no chance of actual passage to date.

But a new Brookings Institution study takes a close look at the bill as policy and comes away impressed. John Hudak, the analyst who authored the report, calls the idea "fairly unique" and deserving of greater "examination and analysis" than it has received. He also suggests modifications that might make the plan more politically palatable.

Hudak lauds the proposal for giving manufacturers access to capital that can be hard to come by for a weak sector in a weak economy. Another strength of the plan, he writes, is that it allows for significant local control - putting decision-making power in the hands of local manufacturers and governments.

Hudak also trumpets the measure's call for local Make it in America Partnership Boards, tapping manufacturers and government officials to advise local businesses in the use of the government grants. But he calls for an expanded mission for those boards: they should work to drum up local private capital for manufacturers, too, he argues.

Manufacturing, which took huge blows in the 2000s, has a public relations problem, Hudak argues. And it needs this kind of public-private partnership to convince investors that the sector is worthy of their money.

The analyst also calls for a shift from out-and-out grants to loans as a way to pick up support in the cost-conscious GOP. And he suggests a small pilot program, implemented by the Obama Administration without Congressional approval, could help drum up bi-partisan support for the measure.

These are all fine suggestions. But they're not without flaw. Hudak, I think, underestimates the depth of the partisan divide. Cicilline's block grant proposal is part of a broader Make it in America agenda championed by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. This is, arguably, the House Democrats' signature program.

Few observers expect Democrats to regain control of the House in November. And given the hyper-partisanship that prevails in Washington, it is virtually impossible to imagine a re-elected Speaker Boehner allowing any significant parts of the Make it in America agenda to go through next year - whatever its merits as policy.

If a deeply unpopular Cicilline just holds onto his seat this fall, and appears vulnerable in 2014, Boehner may be even less inclined to hand him a big legislative victory.

I also question the ability of a public-private board to drum up support among investors - at least in Rhode Island. The banks, particularly in a tough economy, will be looking at the numbers above all else. And the Ocean State, despite some successes here and there, has trailed its New England neighbors in the sort of high-tech "advanced manufacturing" - think quiet, efficient robots rather than loud assembly lines - that is the future in this country.

But Hudak's call for a pilot program as a way to build support for the program has some merit. Perhaps Congressman Cicilline can convince the Obama Administration to get on board - ideally, before the election.

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