Bill seeks labels detailing U.S. content of cars


The "Buy American" movement sweeping the nation took a new turn yesterday when Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski announced she will introduce legislation requiring all cars sold in the United States to carry a label listing the percentage of American parts and labor.

Calling the proposed legislation a "consumer bill," Ms. Mikulski said that its aim was to eliminate the confusion over when a car is U.S.-made and when it is an import.

"People who want to buy American don't know how to do it," she said. "They hear that some Mercurys are built in Mexico. Some Dodges are built in Korea. Some Hondas are built in Ohio, and some Mitsubishis are built in Illinois."

"This is not Japan-bashing," Ms. Mikulski said at a news conference held at the United Auto Workers Local 239 building on Oldham Street, not far from the General Motors assembly plant on Broening Highway.

"We're not telling the consumer what to buy," the Democratic senator said. "This bill would just let them know what they are buying." Ms. Mikulski, who is running for her second term this year, added that it was also an attempt to preserve the jobs of U.S. autoworkers.

Rachel Kunzler, a member of Ms. Mikulski's staff, said she was not aware of any similar bills introduced in recent years.

John Steele, another spokesman for the senator, said the legislation "is motivated by the needs of American consumers, not politics."

"It's a common sense bill that deserves to become law," he said. RTC "Folks can walk into a showroom and can tell the gas mileage a car gets, how much the AM-FM cassette costs and know what the whitewalls cost. But they have no idea what percentage of American parts and labor went into making the car."

Dale Sewell of Highlandtown views himself as a victim of the confusion.

When Mr. Sewell went shopping for a new car in 1988, he bought a rust-colored, four-door Chevrolet Spectrum. He felt good about his purchase. "My father worked at the GM plant," he said. "He was on the assembly line, and I wanted to support the U.S. autoworkers. That's the No. 1 reason I bought a GM product."

Mr. Sewell, 23, said he was surprised to learn about a month ago that his Chevy was an import with 92 percent of its contents coming from Japan. He traded the car for a new Chevrolet Astro minivan made at GM's plant here. "How can you buy American if you don't know what's American?" asked Rodney A. Trump, president of UAW Local 239. "Apple pie, baseball and Chevrolet should be American, but some Chevrolets are not." Mr. Trump noted that the General Motors Pontiac LeMans is made in South Korea. The Mazda 626, in contrast, has been classified as a U.S.-built car because 75 percent of its content is from the United States.

Determining the U.S. content of a car can be "a very confusing thing," said David Cole of the University of Michigan Institute for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "There is no such thing as a 100 percent national content."

Reaction to Ms. Mikulski's proposal was mixed. William E. Kidd, vice president of Timonium Toyota-Volvo said, "The more information the consumer has the better."

The Big Three domestic automakers -- GM, Ford and Chrysler -- all issued statements yesterday saying that although they were not familiar with the details of the proposal, they thought it would help consumers.

"We would be thrilled to report the domestic content and labor in our cars, especially if everyone else had to do it," said Chrysler spokesman John Guiniven.

George C. Nield warned, however, that such legislation could spark a protectionist movement abroad that could backfire on the United States. Mr. Nield is president of the Arlington, Va.-based Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc., a trade group representing more than 21 foreign auto manufacturers selling cars in this country.

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