The Strategic National Stockpile having been allowed to deteriorate under the Trump administration, the President needs to turn to his full authority under the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA). The Act gives the President the power to redirect the entire economy to produce the goods and materials necessary to fight the coronavirus. Trump has invoked it thousands of times to make sure vital war materials are available. His reluctance to use it to the full extent to combat the coronavirus has aggravated his two months of denial, lies and lassitude that has made America the world leader in Covid-19 cases, strained the healthcare system to the breaking point, and caused massive suffering and deaths that could have been avoided.
He has refused to fully employ the Act because of lobbying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the heads of Fortune 500 companies. His grudging, selective invocations of the Act affect only seven companies at this writing and do not go nearly far enough to mobilize U.S. manufacturers to produce the items essential to combatting the coronavirus. The problem with this narrow approach is that there is no way these firms can possibly satisfy even a miniscule portion of the desperate demand for ventilators, personal protective equipment and test kits coming in from our 6,200 hospitals and hundreds of labs. Thousands of manufacturing firms with these production capabilities are not being asked to join in. This is irresponsible and is guaranteed to prompt doctors and nurses to ration these life-saving devices as we proceed to the apex of the crisis. What Sarah Palin falsely claimed about Obamacare death panels will now become a reality under “Trumpcare.”
Fortunately, some manufacturers have voluntarily retrofitted their production facilities to make ventilators and other items, but their efforts are scattershot and unevenly distributed. Moreover, they operate in a coordination vacuum caused by federal confusion and ineptitude. That means that down the line when they eventually produce ventilators, for example, it is likely that the disorganized allocation and distribution channels will cause some hospitals to get an oversupply while desperate medical facilities will not get any.
Instead of using the DPA, Trump’s lame strategy was to have the Department of Health and Human Services issue a “Request for Information” on March 21st in an attempt to find out who makes ventilators. Two months into the pandemic, the government had no idea. You would think this might have been a high priority.
Appoint the One Right Coordinator: DLA
Compounding Trump’s failure to use the DPA is his appointment of anti-trade negotiator Peter Navarro as his DPA coordinator. There is nothing in Navarro’s background to indicate that he has the managerial experience and manufacturing knowledge to do this job competently. Moreover, Trump has sent son-in-law Jared Kushner to FEMA to coordinate its delivery of personal protective equipment to healthcare facilities, a job for which both he and FEMA are ill-equipped. Kushner because of zero experience and a history of failure, and FEMA because, while it is very competent to respond to emergencies like floods and hurricanes (Katrina aside) that are limited in geographic scope, it has little experience with nationwide catastrophes. So, along with Mike Pence, who heads the coronavirus task force, we now have three coordinators destined to spoil the stew. When one top-flight manager is demanded, we get three inexperienced coordinators and one agency that has never done anything like this before.
The solution is to call upon the one government agency with the expertise, track record, resources and manpower that can do the job: the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA). DLA’s 26,000 men and women have vast experience in directing and coordinating the production and delivery of massive supplies and equipment needed to successfully fight wars all over the world. They even have experience in past public health crises such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak. DLA could even help with the government’s woeful inability to get testing kits out to the places desperate for them. Not exploiting that competence in the present crisis is inexplicable and nothing short of scandalous.
It is possible that Donald Trump is unaware of this incredible resource he has at his disposal in DLA. Someone ought to tell him.
Full disclosure: I worked with DLA at the Pentagon on a variety of matters and always came away dazzled by its efficiency and expertise. I was also a FEMA legal consultant when the agency worked well.
April 3, 2020