A group of Democrats is pushing to include provisions in a coronavirus relief package that would force President Trump to hit the gas on the Defense Production Act (DPA) and ramp up production of key medical supplies.
The measure from Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and backed by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) requires the Trump administration to use the powers of the DPA to ramp up production of testing supplies, protective equipment for health workers and any other supplies needed to fight COVID-19.
The 1950 law Democrats want Trump to more fully utilize gives the president power to direct companies to boost the manufacturing of supplies needed in an emergency. Trump has used the law’s powers on some occasions — for example, to increase production of swabs for testing — but he has not used it to the extent desired by Democrats and medical groups. Those groups note that harmful shortages still exist months into the pandemic.
“Here we are in August and the pandemic is getting worse, not better, and I still hear daily from constituents about a lack of access to masks, gloves, gowns, face shields, testing platforms, testing kits, reagents, and other necessary medical supplies,” Baldwin said.
Health care groups are also sounding the alarm about a lack of sufficient protective equipment, as they have for months.
Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, said her organization is pushing to require full use of the DPA in this package to ensure enough protective equipment “so that we are not reusing, which is unsafe.”
“It’s more than just a thorn in our side, it’s taking a lot of emotional energy,” she said of protective equipment shortages.
“We have been lobbying, begging, demanding” to get DPA provisions into the upcoming package, she added.
There are also still supply shortages holding back testing, an area where the number of tests has improved, but labs are overwhelmed and often take many days to return results.
Murphy said he has spoken “at length” with Schumer about including the legislation in the coronavirus response package currently being negotiated.
“The entire caucus is behind this effort, and I know this is a priority,” Murphy said.
Trump, though, has long resisted using the DPA as a key tool for responding to the public health crisis.
“We’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said earlier in the pandemic, in March, when asked about using the DPA.
The administration has shifted much of the responsibility to states, who say they are competing against each other for supplies and unnecessarily bidding up the prices.
The White House did not comment directly on Murphy and Baldwin’s legislation, but defended Trump’s efforts on supplies.
“President Trump has used the Defense Production Act 33 times and led the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to deliver critical supplies, including face masks, PPE [personal protective equipment], and ventilators, to the areas that need it most and saving countless lives,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.
The White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services and the private sector have already coordinated delivery of over 200 million N95 masks and 36 million face shields, among other supplies.
In a longer-term move, Trump on Thursday signed an executive order encouraging the domestic production of drugs, touting U.S. manufacturing abilities. He stopped short of the steps Democrats and medical groups are pushing for on pandemic supplies.
Murphy and Baldwin said they have not received much interest from Senate Republicans on their proposal, raising further doubts about whether it can make it into the package.
“Republicans seem disinterested in this topic,” Murphy said, noting that some Republicans have put forward longer-term proposals to reduce U.S. dependence on Chinese manufacturing of medical supplies, but have not signed onto the measure to drastically ramp up production in the short term during the pandemic.
When Democrats tried to pass their bill by unanimous consent last month, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the matter, objected, saying the measure had not been properly vetted and that Democrats were seeking to bypass the committee process.
Much of the focus on the next relief package, including from Democratic negotiators, has been on economic issues like unemployment insurance and rental assistance.
Murphy said he is pushing to make sure the health crisis at the root of the economic problems is addressed as well.
“If you don't solve the underlying public health crisis, there’s no amount of stimulus that will work,” he said.
Economists of all stripes have made similar arguments, saying the economy will not fully recover unless the coronavirus is contained.
To that end, the American Medical Association (AMA) said it has been calling for more action on supplies since March.
“We continue to call on the Administration to activate the Defense Production Act to bolster PPE and testing supplies, and also implement a national coordinated strategy to ensure the production, acquisition, and distribution of PPE and testing supplies,” AMA President Susan Bailey said in a statement.
The bill from Murphy and Baldwin would also establish a new position in the executive branch to oversee the supplies needed to fight the pandemic and issue reports every week on those needs. The official in charge would then be required to issue orders under the DPA for supplies that are needed and oversee their distribution.
“This country has lots of money,” said Ross, the nursing union president. “It has lots of brainpower, and we're not using it.”