Trump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act
President Trump is resisting growing pressure to use his authority under a defense law to increase production of urgently needed supplies to fight the coronavirus.
Governors in some of the hardest-hit states, as well as hospitals, doctors and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, are urging Trump to immediately use his powers under the 1950 Defense Production Act (DPA) to direct industries to ramp up the manufacturing of crucial items like masks for health care workers and ventilators for patients.
But Trump has rejected those calls, arguing that such steps would lead to the government intervening too much in the private sector. Instead, he said he is relying on voluntary commitments from companies.
The president said this week that the idea of using the law “sent tremors through our business community and through our country” because “you’re going to nationalize an industry.”
The DPA would not nationalize a business but would give the government more power to direct the firm’s production of critical supplies.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday responded to Trump’s DPA comments by saying the law “does not nationalize any industry” and that voluntary commitments from businesses are not enough.
“It can’t just be, ‘Hey who wants to help? Let me know,’” Cuomo said. “We need to know the numbers of what we need to produce and who is going to produce that and when.”
Cuomo added that when states are forced to compete against each other in the absence of the federal government taking control, they end up bidding up prices, to the point that masks that used to cost $0.85 are now $7 apiece.
In Congress, Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) introduced a bill Monday calling for much higher levels of production by forcing Trump to use his DPA powers.
Their bill calls for producing 500 million masks, as well as 200,000 ventilators and other key supplies.
And it’s not just Democrats calling on Trump to draw on his authority.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Friday calling on him to use the law’s powers to increase production of ventilators, citing warnings out of Italy that people are being denied life-saving care because there are not enough the machines.
“Without more ventilators (and workers to operate them), hospitals will soon be unable to provide these life-saving machines to a number of their critically ill patients, and doctors will have to make life-or-death decisions about who needs the machines most,” Cruz wrote.
The American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association wrote a joint letter to Trump over the weekend saying health care workers “desperately need” more supplies and calling on him to use his powers under the DPA to increase production.
Some health care workers are currently “reusing masks or resorting to makeshift alternatives for masks,” they wrote.
White House officials, however, insist that the voluntary actions by companies have been sufficient to meet demand.
“We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down,” White House adviser Peter Navarro said Sunday.
The business community is also pushing back on the idea. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned Monday that invoking the law “may do more harm than good” by causing “confusion” among businesses already undertaking voluntary efforts.
Some companies have made public pledges.
3M said it is now making 35 million respirator masks per month in the United States. Honeywell said it is expanding a plant in Rhode Island to make masks, though it did not say how many would it would produce.
But the reality on the ground can be slower than the pledges for speedy action.
“Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST!” Trump tweeted on Sunday.
General Motors said it is not making ventilators but is looking at ways to help the health care company Ventec increase its production.
A Ford spokeswoman said: “We continue to explore what’s feasible while moving at lightning speed to address these efforts.”
Trump has also given conflicting statements on whether he would use the DPA’s powers.
On Thursday, Trump said governors should be getting supplies on their own, since the federal government is not a “shipping clerk.” The next day he said he had directed “a lot” of companies to make “a lot of ventilators” and “a lot of masks.”
But on Sunday, Trump made clear that he was not ordering companies to increase production, instead relying on voluntary action, and pointed to Venezuela as a warning of too much government involvement.
“We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “Call a person over in Venezuela, ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out. Not too well.”
Some experts argue, though, that without the federal government taking charge, states are left to compete against each other for resources and can get into bidding wars.
“Every day that 40 or more state procurement officials waste time trying to purchase supplies from a leading firm that, for obvious reasons, concludes that it’s easier or most profitable to try to meet, say, California, or New York, or even Texas’ massive need, is a day wasted in a crisis,” Steven Schooner, an expert in government procurement at George Washington University, wrote in an email.
Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard professor and former Obama administration homeland security official, wrote that companies needed certainty from the federal government in order to increase production.
“Major manufacturers WILL NOT DRAMATICALLY CHANGE priorities of production until US promises them a market,” she wrote on Twitter. “We can’t do this on mere charity.”