Administration to Use Defense Production Act for First Time in Coronavirus Pandemic

Move by Trump officials covers 60,000 coronavirus test kits, as health workers face severe shortages

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration is set to use a Korean War-era defense mobilization law for the first time in the coronavirus pandemic to expedite the production of about 60,000 coronavirus test kits, as health care workers around the country face severe shortages in kits, masks, ventilators and other crucial equipment.

“There are some test kits we need to get our hands on,” Peter Gaynor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said Tuesday on CNN. He said the federal government was also inserting “language” relevant to the law into its contract for 500 million masks.

Mr. Trump, speaking at a briefing later Tuesday, suggested that the Defense Production Act had not in fact been used, saying the government wouldn’t hesitate to invoke it but hadn’t “found it to be the case” that the law needed to be used. The White House declined to clarify whether he was disputing Mr. Gaynor’s assertion earlier in the day.

The DPA gives the president powers to require and to provide incentives to businesses to produce goods tied to national defense, as well as to control the distribution of those products. Amendments since the 1950s have widened its scope, enabling presidents to invoke it not just for war efforts but to prepare for and recover from natural hazards.

The White House and FEMA didn’t respond to requests for details on which aspects of the law the administration planned to use, nor what “DPA language” it was inserting into the mask contract.

President Trump last week issued an executive order declaring that health and medical resources needed to respond to the coronavirus outbreak meet the requirements under the law. The order delegated the secretary of health and human services to administer the act. The president subsequently resisted calls to use the act, saying he is concerned about nationalizing American businesses.

“We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business,” Mr. Trump said at a press briefing on Sunday. He said sufficient numbers of companies were volunteering to manufacture masks and other protective gear, but he said “we may have to use it someplace along the chain.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, alongside Mr. Gaynor, has taken a lead role in determining whether to use the law, while working with companies to increase their voluntary efforts to produce more masks and ventilators.

Governors have called on the president to invoke the law to control production and distribution of critical supplies, saying states are having to compete against each other for supplies.

“Only the federal government has that power. Not to exercise that power is inexplicable to me,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday. “Voluntarism is nice, and it is a beautiful thing, and it’s nice that these companies are coming forward and saying that they want to help. That is not going to get us there.”

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday said it wasn’t necessary to invoke the act for production of ventilators.

“Whether it be ventilators and equipment that our hospital personnel need… every time we’ve asked American industry to step forward, they’ve said yes,” he said at a Fox News town hall program.

The Defense Production Act is invoked regularly on a far smaller scale. Last summer, for instance, Mr. Trump invoked the law to order the Pentagon to boost the production of rare-earth magnets used in electronics to counter possible restrictions from China on the exports of those materials.

Administration officials have been having tense internal discussions about whether to use the law for weeks, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers privately echoed concerns raised by outside business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that using the law to mandate production of medical supplies could hurt some companies and further harm the economy.

Administration officials have also warned that the law isn’t a quick fix because it could take weeks or months for manufacturing facilities to reconfigure themselves to make new products.

The Chamber raised concerns that using the law—and separately imposing buy-American provisions on medical equipment, as some in the administration are proposing—could complicate supply chains of key products.

“The Defense Production Act isn’t a magic wand to immediately solving medical supply shortages. It can’t produce highly specialized manufacturing equipment overnight,” said Neil Bradley, chief policy officer at the Chamber.

Meanwhile, health care professionals have pleaded with the administration to use the act, pointing to the severe shortages in masks, respirators, gowns and diagnostic testing supplies. In a letter to the president on Saturday, the heads of the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association urged him to use the law to increase production of medical supplies, saying they were “urgently needed.”

“Even with an infusion of supplies from the strategic stockpile and other federal resources, there will not be enough medical supplies, including ventilators, to respond to the projected Covid-19 outbreak,” they wrote.

Mr. Trump’s critics have also called on him to use the law more broadly. “What is he waiting for? He says he’s a wartime president, well, god, act like one,” former Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Trump’s leading rival in the presidential election, said on CNN on Tuesday.

Full article at Wall Street Journal (Paywall)

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