Taking a closer look at the future of our nation’s supply chains
Every day, Americans rely on vast, complex, and interconnected supply chains that manufacture and deliver everything from life essentials such as food, clothing and medicines to pieces, parts and products for businesses small and large. Yet despite their clear importance to everyday life and a growing economy, most people give at best passing thought to the operation and sustainability of these systems. This fact is even more true for our government — at least until there is a crisis.
Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world, our nation experienced an unfathomable shortage of personal protective equipment for health care and other essential workers. In grocery stores across the country, Americans witnessed shortages of certain items at grocery stores and unprecedented long lines at food banks, while at the same time farmers were forced to euthanize livestock or dump fresh milk for lack of access to markets. These are but a few of the iconic images from the first months of the coronavirus crisis.
Our government’s historic lack of focused attention to supply chain issues, and the many different policies, processes and circumstances that shape U.S. supply chain competitiveness and resiliency became clear in stark terms during the COVID-19 pandemic. The consequences were felt in virtually every community and every area of our economy.
The private sector in large part stepped up and adapted to the enormous challenges over many arduous months. It is important, however, that we look back to assess the role government played in the issues in our supply chains. Certain actions and agency guidances had a positive impact, helping to better define essential workers and to keep freight moving across the country when we needed it the most. But COVID-19 also laid bare the lack of understanding about how modern supply chains function and the need for greater coordination with the private sector, as well as between government bodies. Supply chains are primarily the responsibility of the private sector, but there’s an important role for lawmakers, the administration and regulatory agencies, as well. The sheer breadth of issues and lack of ownership contributed to breakdowns in communication, duplicative efforts, and missed opportunities to seize the moment.
It would be difficult to point to any one policy and to say it would have changed the course of supply chain history. And that may be precisely the point — it’s not about a single policy, but about how many actions and policies intersect with one another, and about whether we can become more strategic and thoughtful as a country about structuring our economy and policy environment to drive competitiveness and resiliency. Addressing supply chain friction points or dislocations stands to enhance the efficiency, sustainability, and equity of American enterprise. We will all benefit — because we all rely on supply chains, even when we aren’t aware of it.
The “COVID-19 Supply Chain Resiliency Act of 2021” is about helping remove barriers and identifying opportunities to strengthen and support the nation’s critical supply chains. It is not about expanding government’s role in supply chains. Rather, it is about better understanding the role that has always existed, and about how government can ensure that the actions it does take are helping — not hindering — our nation’s ability to respond in crisis.
Such an Office of Supply Chain Resiliency will need to tackle tough questions and thread together current and future policies to help us overcome the pandemic and prepare for the next. How can we ensure the availability, accessibility and affordability of essential everyday products? How can we ensure the security, prosperity, and well-being of our citizens, especially in times of great need? And how can we ensure that our health care heroes, first responders, manufacturers, warehouse workers, truckers and other critical infrastructure workers have what they need, when they need it, to keep delivering for America?
With the new administration and vaccine distribution in full swing, now is the time to take a look at these and other questions. There’s momentum toward a retrospective look at how supply chains weathered COVID-19, and opportunities exist to build resiliency and competitiveness going forward. With an infrastructure debate on deck this year, we have the opportunity to act, ensuring that we learn from 2020’s challenges and chart a course toward resiliency and global competitiveness.
The first step to success is simply to take supply chain issues more seriously, and for us to collectively recognize that supply chains do not operate in a vacuum. They operate in the context we create as policymakers and leaders in Washington. It is up to us, Republicans and Democrats, to better direct and coordinate how we intend for those systems to function and deliver for Americans. We both look forward to working with members of Congress and the administration to support our legislation and to take a lead on securing critical supply chains.
Brad Schneider represents the 10th District of Illinois and Dusty Johnson represents South Dakota at large.