One of the many dismaying episodes in President Trump’s erratic response to the coronavirus pandemic has involved the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that allows the federal government to direct private companies to produce scarce supplies.
Last week, Trump said he was authorizing federal agencies to apply the law if necessary to ramp up the production and acquisition of ventilators and protective equipment for health care workers. But ever since, he’s been reluctant to put those powers to use, even though doctors and nurses around the country are desperately short on gowns, masks, gloves, and other sanitary gear, putting them and their patients at risk.
With front-line medical workers now resorting to reusing masks and cobbling together equipment with 3-D printers and office supplies, it’s time to stop dithering.
Because the administration has not set up a clear and centralized procurement process for personal protective equipment, or PPE, states have been stuck competing with each other and the federal government for scant supplies. Meanwhile, shipments from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile have fulfilled mere fractions of the number of medical masks that most states, including Massachusetts, have requested. Governor Charlie Baker told Trump last week that the state had been outbid by the federal government on “three big orders” for PPE. Trump chuckled and suggested Baker should have offered more money.
Not only was Trump’s response bizarrely cavalier, given that inadequate protections for health care workers could dramatically inhibit the effort to contain the outbreak or could even reignite it, it was also an admission that there’s a big shortage of supplies. So it’s hard to understand Trump’s position that the Defense Production Act is something he’s warming up in the bullpen in case there is a “worst-case scenario in the future." If this isn’t yet such a scenario, how much worse would he let it get before he saw it necessary to do more?
Trump put the law into play last week only after mounting pressure from public-health experts and members of Congress. If the administration would follow up by doing what the law allows, it could contract with private companies to produce critical supplies and require that they prioritize that work over any other. The law also clears the administration to lend money to manufacturers if that’s necessary to spur production and protects the companies from antitrust rules that could inhibit their ability to cooperate.
Trump presumably knows this, or at least he should. Last summer he used the Defense Production Act to encourage domestic production of the ultra-strong magnets used in military and consumer electronics. Yet somehow he’s not quite there with the coronavirus?
On Sunday, after governors and hospitals urged him to fully employ the law’s provisions, Trump said it wasn’t necessary because he was getting companies to voluntarily ramp up production of masks and other equipment. He elaborated on his reluctance by adding: “We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business. Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well."
That’s ridiculous. Nationalizing businesses is not on the table. The Defense Production Act doesn’t require the government to take over ownership of private equipment manufacturers. (As for nationalization being the last refuge of radicals, someone should tell the national security officials in Trump’s own administration who have, according to Axios, considered taking over telecommunications companies as a way to respond to China’s prowess in 5G mobile technology.)
On Monday, Trump appeared to be itching to end the period of social isolation that he encouraged last week to stop the spread of COVID-19. It’s doubtful that the virus will be contained soon enough to justify such a pullback, and it’s unconscionable that the president would consider such a move without doing everything possible to make sure health care workers have the equipment to handle the surge in patients they expect. The administration should act now, since ramping up production takes time, and not wait for the next stage of the crisis to manifest.
Pulling the levers allowed by the Defense Production Act wouldn’t be a magical instant solution to the supply shortage that this administration allowed to fester for months after the coronavirus first popped up. And using the law to its fullest potential would require more managerial competence than the administration has demonstrated thus far. But it could speed things up, and it would signal, for a change, that the federal government really has everyone’s back.
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