As nurses sew their own face masks, hospitals ration tests and split ventilators, and ventilator drugs dwindle nationwide, a desperate America has zeroed in on the promises of the Defense Production Act, the Korean War–era statute that empowers the federal government to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of badly needed medical supplies. Deploying the DPA to combat COVID-19 is a no-brainer, but using it effectively is not a matter of turning it “on,” like a faucet or a light switch. The nature and scale of the crisis dictate otherwise. Reliance on all of the DPA’s authorities to implement a comprehensive national strategy for pandemic response is both a necessary and an unprecedented use of the statute. Getting this right will require immediate cooperation between President Donald Trump and Congress on the question of funding, extensive interagency coordination, and extraordinary innovation at the intersection of government and private industry.
But none of this can happen while confusion about the DPA reigns and the government resists meaningfully deploying the statute. Over the past month, Trump has characterized the law as a weapon of last resort, to be used only if the private industry refuses to act on its own. Although FEMA’s administrator, Pete Gaynor, announced on CNN last week that the DPA would be used to procure testing kits, the agency retracted the statement after Trump tweeted that he hadn’t had to use it “because no one has said NO!” In the face of mounting pressure from the national-security community and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Trump has nominally embraced the statute, but for the limited purpose of singling out companies for undefined deficiencies.