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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 03/11/2011

Smithsonian opening a 'Made in America' gift shop

By Ed O'Keefe

The Star-Spangled Banner at the American History Museum. (Susan Biddle/Post)

Eye Opener

Any visitor to a Smithsonian gift shop along the Mall has seen it. Flip over a flag pin, coffee mug or bust of President Obama, and there it is: "Made in China."

But in a change prompted by congressional pressure, Americans visiting the American History Museum will soon be able to "Buy American."

The Smithsonian Institution is planning to stock the shelves of a gift shop adjacent to its popular American presidents exhibit with goods only made in the United States. Visitors to other nearby museums in the coming months will also find more domestically-produced clothing, paperweights, magnets and wood carvings.

Officials unveiled the plans this week after an ultimatum from lawmakers: Either sell more American-made tschotskes or risk losing billions in federal funding.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) first raised objections in January when he learned the Smithsonian was selling presidential busts "crafted in China." In a strongly-worded letter he urged the Smithsonian to "do its very best to find American companies to manufacture the products that it sells." (ABC News later picked up on the concerns as part of a series of reports on American manufacturing.)

Sanders gave his blessing to the changes during a Capitol Hill meeting this week, but warned he'll introduce a bill forcing the America-only purchases if they don't follow through.

Rep. Nick Rahall (W. Va.), the ranking Democrat on a committee overseeing Smithsonian construction, went a step further, this week introducing a bill that would prevent the Smithsonian from using federal dollars for new construction or renovations unless the gift shops within a structure are stocked only with American goods. He called the Smithsonian's dependence on foreign goods an "insult" to American workers and artists.

The changes come amid an uncertain period for the Smithsonian museums. Officials warned last week that Washington-area Smithsonian museums could lose millions during the busy spring tourist season if a federal government shutdown occurs in the coming weeks. As part of the ongoing budget negotiations, lawmakers may consider trimming museum budgets or implementing a visitors fee proposed by the president's bipartisan fiscal commission.

While the patriotic purchasing decisions might score political points, they'll come at a cost: Some of the museums's most popular gift shop items are exclusively manufactured overseas, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

Visitors spend an average of $20 at Smithsonian gift shops; younger visitors on spring field trips spend much less, she said.

Smithsonian personnel assigned to buy gift shop goods "look for good value, range of prices, where it is made (always seeking made in America first)," St. Thomas said in an e-mail. They only attend American trade shows, contract primarily with U.S.-based companies, and plan to follow up with new domestic vendors who reached out this week after the announcement. However, "There are small crafts shops and specialty manufacturers that cannot meet our need for product, especially in the spring and summer seasons," St. Thomas said.

What do you think of the changes? Are they a good idea or too much of a burden for the Smithsonian to fulfill? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | March 11, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Eye Opener  
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A day late and a dollar short. While this is a tiny first step our government has to take a look at all of our so called free trade agreements and correct the many flaws that disadvantage American workers.

Posted by: PennyWisetheClown | March 11, 2011 8:14 AM | Report abuse

What the Smithsonian ought to do is open a "Made in America" wing, and then leave plenty of room for expansion.

Posted by: CitizenArcane | March 11, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I never buy a thing in the Smithsonian b/c everything they sell there is cheap junk made in China. Whenever I travel, I seek out products made in the places I visit. This change is a great first step in helping to put Americans back in manufacturing / creating / making products instead of settling for the garbage dumped on us from overseas.

Posted by: ms1234 | March 11, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

At last this should have been done a long time ago. Now Federal agencies that give away trinkets and key chains at meetings should be encouraged strongly to buy American. In my years as a Federal employee I have never seen a Made in America give away at meetings.

Posted by: 46brian | March 11, 2011 10:46 AM | Report abuse

This is racist.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | March 11, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Hmmmmm, "Made in America."

Must be planning a room filled with empty shelves.

Posted by: kjclark1963 | March 11, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Why is it racist to insist on made in America? That's ridiculous.
I agree, free trade agreements, including NAFTA, should be shelved. American workers, especially those who do not have a college education, should be provided an opportunity to a good middle class life that can ONLY be had through manufacturing. America is not JUST about political rights and freedoms, it is also about economic opportunity that is sadly lacking these days.

Other countries do not allow a free flow of goods, because they want to protect their industries and workers. Stupidly, we are the only ones who don't; instead we over emphasize the benefits of free trade (essentially one way trade -- we design, they manufacture, we buy), without worrying about its impact on our workers, our employment scenario. There is a politically expedient "jobs re-training" program that every president touts that provides training for laid-off workers. So that they can learn to flip hamburgers or wait on tables, because those are the only jobs that can't be exported.

Let your heart bleed when you see a 45 year old laid-off machinist manning the check out counter at a grocery store. For what greater good? So that the stuff the Smithsonian sells are affordable to students on vacation? Stuff that will end up forgotten in their drawer the following week!

With our horrendous trade deficit we are exporting a trillion dollars of capital in the last 5 years, capital that should have remained within our economy to provide jobs and growth. Our exports. meager as it is, seem to consist mainly of Boeing aircraft, commodities, and arms. They are stuff other people will continue to buy irrespective of the trade situation, because they are a "must have", rather than a "nice to have".

Posted by: Observer20 | March 11, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

This cheap grandstanding is brought to you by Congress: We passed NAFTA and created tax incentives for "American" companies to move your job overseas. We have awesome health care and exempted ourselves from the salary freeze.
Congress: Finding profit where civilians see rank hypocrisy.
Bye, American! (oops, was that out loud?)

Posted by: redlineblue | March 11, 2011 2:21 PM | Report abuse

It's racist because you people are so afraid of buying something made by brown people that you can't see straight.

If you'd rather buy a shirt made by a redneck than a brown person, you might just be a racist.

Think about it.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | March 11, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

As much as I hate to see Congress meddle in things, this is a good idea. I'm sick of buying junk from China. I actually try to find things made in America, but it is very difficult. I think it is the highest act of patriotism to support our own industries, even if it costs a few dollars more. The sad thing is someone had to force the Smithsonian to do this.

Posted by: PepperDr | March 11, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

But how many people will be willing/able to pay the price for American goods? Will they buy one American-made garment if they can get 3 Chinese-made ones for the same price? Will they spend the premium for the TV manufactured by workers making American wages?

Posted by: Erasma | March 11, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The Smithsonian should stock goods of a quality and at a price point that people want to buy. It may mean that the goods therefore come from China. Americans want cheap goods. The new store will fail because American tourists won't want to pay the prices. Most Americans shop based primarily on price, not based on nationalism. Especially young Americans who have a more global mindset.

Posted by: conchfc | March 11, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

>>The sad thing is someone had to force the Smithsonian to do this.

No, the sad thing is that American shoppers are damn near as hypocritical as their congressional grifters. Stores dont sell Chinese stuff cause it's Chinese, they sell it cause it's cheep, which is all most tourist shoppers care about. To all the grousing about "If I ran my bidniz like the gummint runs theirs...", I'm obliged to ask: Is your business fixing to stop selling stuff most people will pay for, in an utterly insignificant parody of patriotism?
Find me a cost-competitive American manufacturer of, say, American flags/toy dinosaurs/model airplanes. Then we'll talk about what's really sad.

Posted by: redlineblue | March 11, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I guess just three people at a time will be able to fit into the store. I get so tired of politicians pulling these stunts.

Posted by: jckdoors | March 11, 2011 3:41 PM | Report abuse

How about:

1. All elected Federal officials must buy nothing but American products unless certified that it is not feasable to do so?

2. No foreign cars permitted on Federal highways.

Actually, I do not understand why manufacturers of big ticket items have not lobbied for preference in government contracts to domestic manufacturers. Its incredible that the Chamber of Commerce opposes tariffs on foreign goods.

Posted by: dfsolomon | March 11, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I am so happy this is finally happening!

Americans have been blaming everybody and their mother for the economic crisis... the truth is that AMERICANS themselves have been sending all their money to China and making it very rich! Now America is even in DEBT with China. I don't see how that can be racist!
They don't respect intellectual property or human / children's rights, wages are too low workers' conditions too poor...

I am so glad this is finally happening. I started three years ago. I don't buy Chinese. American, South American or European... May be African if there is anything available... But NOT Chinese.

This is a consumer's World! I won't allow ANYBODY to call me racist because I preserve my values and economic interests!!!

Posted by: MrsD1 | March 11, 2011 3:57 PM | Report abuse

It's about time Congress began to support US workers. This is one way to "encourage" buy in America. Go for it.

Posted by: aaevans1 | March 11, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

It's not like our major memorials and monuments are made in China... Oh wait...

Posted by: vankrasn | March 11, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

We must ask a fundamental question - do we want a manufacturing sector with unskilled workers punching out cheap trinkets of the type at issue here, and if so, how can we expect to pay them a wage that will afford them a decent standard of living in this country? Or do we want a high-skilled, high-paying manufacturing sector like in Germany that makes sophisticated machinery and highly-engineered products, not rubber duckies for Wal-Mart? I also find that many people who love to trash China for stealing our jobs and paying slave wages, have never been to that country or set foot in a Chinese factory. (I have)

Posted by: autore | March 11, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse


Does "Made in China" mean the company that made it isn't U.S.-based or owned, and simply operates a facility (or more) in China?

Does "Made in the U.S.A." mean that the product has no foreign parts, or parts made of foreign materials, and isn't simply "assembled" in the U.S.?

We need to go beyond the sticker on a product and consider its production from start to finish, the global economy, and differences in wages, taxes, worker safety, environmental regulations, and so on. If we want to export anything we should expect some imports as well, but I agree there needs to be balance, fair regulations, etc. It's not as straightforward as some would make it out to be, in my opinion, but that doesn't mean we can't do better, either.

Posted by: smiles4sunandrain | March 11, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

One wonders where the fruit and vegetables in the Congressional cafeteria come from in January and February? Are they only drinking Hawaiian coffee there is the halls of congress. Oh wait, the congressmen might have to shell out 50 cents more for a cup of coffee or the fruit plate. It is alright to make the 8th graders subsidize US companies, but what about Congress and their staffers?

Posted by: crete | March 11, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

This proposal would really monkeywrench the gift shops at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. They stock lots of Indian-made goods, many at very high prices, from Canada and Central and South America, as well as from US tribes. Say goodbye to those $1000 Haida robes and Peruvian gourds....

Posted by: acesdc | March 11, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

The problem with purchasing goods which are "Made in America" is that different laws define the term differently. For example, under the Customs laws an article is a product of the country in which a "substantial transformation" occurs which results in a "new and different article of commerce having a new name character and use." However, the Federal Trade Commission has a stricter definition which essentially requires that an article is Made in America only if all or virtually all parts and labor originate in the U.S. Still other statutes, like that which controls the labeling of automobiles, have different definitions. Perhaps Senator Sandeers and Mr. Rahall should simplify the law before they make demands which are so difficult to meet.

Posted by: bshulman | March 11, 2011 5:10 PM | Report abuse

The best way to help the American economy is to buy goods that are the best value, no matter where they are made. Babying along American companies by buying from them out of pity doesn't help them in the long run.

Posted by: davanden | March 11, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

I would feel a whole lot better if the Congress would stop passing laws that make American companies less competitive.

Posted by: cr8oncsu | March 11, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the mission of the Smithsonian to "for the increase & diffusion of knowledge"??

I'd bet a Billion bucks that stores produce revenue to fund the museum and lessen the tax burden on the people of the USA.

Buying goods at the lowest possible cost and selling them at the highest possible value generates profit. It's this concept of capitalism (not Socialism) that runs the majority of the world. Go to Walmart, Target, Macy's, Bloomingdales, heck -- even Neiman Marcus and you know what? MADE IN CHINA.

The world needs the Smithsonian, and the USA needs an institution like the Smithsonian to showcase Art and Culture.

The world doesn't need all this BS, we need real work from Capitol Hill.

Thank you Bernie, for wasting everyone's time. Please do your job in a manner that keeps our costs and tax dollars as low as possible.

Posted by: MarkinDC2 | March 11, 2011 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it any wonder why the Smithsonian is opening a "Made in America" gift shop.

Pretty much tells you how long anything has been made in America.

Doesn't it?

Posted by: lcarter0311 | March 11, 2011 7:48 PM | Report abuse

where was the MLK Jr Memorial carved? Oh yeah...CHINA. Will there be a "Made in China" stamp on the bottom?

Will ALL federal gift shops (including National Parks) fall under these ridiculous proposed laws or is the Smithsonian being unfairly targeted?

Posted by: bmp246 | March 11, 2011 7:54 PM | Report abuse

What a bunch of idiots. We need to be making as many of our goods as possible in this country. They should have pushed this decades ago. And now they want to bully a museum into doing it? Buy American in the museum, but Chinese in every store other store in the country?
What a bunch of idiots.

Posted by: oo7 | March 11, 2011 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Gee, I didn't realize that the purpose of Free Trade Agreements was to export Americans' jobs. I thought that the purpose was to increase exports of American goods and services AND to benefit American consumers. Which purpose FTAs apparently fulfill:

That being said, I too would favor having Smithsonian gift shops carry American-made goods. Unfortunately, if you've visited them lately, the crap they carry now, made in China or wherever, is already overpriced for the value to the customer. And try finding a picture postcard of DC for sale in most of the museums' gift shops.

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Posted by: zhenghnn | March 11, 2011 9:54 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: nan_lynn | March 11, 2011 11:45 PM | Report abuse

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