Stateline Story

Oh Say, Is That Banner Made in the U.S.A.?

  • May 05, 2008
  • By Kim Mendelsohn

It was seeing foreign-made American flags at a veteran's memorial ceremony that inspired a West Virginia legislator to act.

State Del. Jack Yost (D), a former Army reservist, recently proposed a bill that would require that all flags purchased with state funds be made in the U.S.A.. He's not alone - lawmakers in nine other states also have moved to restrict sales of foreign-made flags.

"Our veterans, they're made in the United States," Yost said. "I saw that flag, and a red flag went up in my mind. I thought, 'This isn't right.'"

Yost's proposal, which will go into effect this summer, is modeled on a Tennessee law passed in 2005. Legislators in Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wisconsin took up similar proposals this spring. The bills in Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma remain in the legislature, while Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) signed their states bills into law in March.

"One of the most important products that we should have made in the U.S.A. is our flag," said Colorado state Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D), who sponsored the Colorado measure.

A new Minnesota law goes even further. It forbids the sale of any foreign-made U.S. flags in the North Star State.

Supporters say patriotism is the driving force behind the measures, but they cite other benefits, too.

Colorado state Rep. Sara Gagliardi (D) backed the idea, in part, because it would boost local production of flags.

A similar proposal in the Iowa General Assembly also sought to ban sales of foreign-made Iowa state and P.O.W./M.I.A. flags.

Iowa state Rep. Ray Zirkelbach (D), an Iraq War veteran who sponsored the bill in the Iowa House, told The Des Moines Register that it was a deeply personal matter for him. According to the paper, Zirkelbach said he wanted to make sure it would be a U.S.-made flag covering his coffin at his funeral.

Zirkelbach did not return calls for comment. His bill passed in the House, but did not make it out of the Senate State Government committee before the Legislature adjourned last month.

A bill pending in Illinois originally sought to ban the sale of all foreign-made U.S. flags, as Minnesota's law does, but was amended to apply only to flags purchased with state funds.

Getting these laws through legislatures is not the only hurdle facing states that follow Minnesota's example. Laws barring the sale of foreign-made products in the United States are in direct conflict with international trade treaties.

"It would violate all of our trade agreements," including the North and Central American Free Trade Agreements, said Steve Charnovitz, a law professor at the George Washington University Law School. "It violates NAFTA, Peru, Oman, Chile CAFTA, Morocco."

Charnovitz said that the laws would run afoul of the principle of "national treatment."

"An imported product cannot be treated less favorably than the domestically produced product" under these rules, Charnovitz said, and laws barring foreign-made U.S. flags clearly do.

Still, it isn't clear that laws banning foreign-made flags will ever be challenged under international treaties. While governments - not companies - can bring such challenges, only Minnesota currently restricts all flags made outside of the U.S.

Also, arguing in support of an American flag that is "Made in China" is not an easy thing for a politician to do.

What is still unclear is the effect the embargo on foreign-made U.S. flags in Minnesota will have on U.S. retailers.

The nation's flag manufacturers shipped $349.2 million worth of flags and similar emblems in 2005, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.  At the same time, the United States imports $5.5 million in flags a year.

The vast majority of flags made outside the United States are produced in China, where labor and materials are significantly less expensive. Vendors are concerned that higher production costs for flags made here will force them to raise their prices.