As The New York Times reports:
Invoking the Defense Production Act is hardly a rare occurrence. As recently as last summer, the Department of Defense used it to obtain rare earth metals needed to build lasers, jet engines and armored vehicles.
The Defense Department estimates that it has used the law's powers 300,000 times a year. The Department of Homeland Security — including its subsidiary, FEMA — placed more than 1,000 so-called rated orders in 2018, often for hurricane and other disaster response and recovery efforts, according to a report submitted to Congress in 2019 by a committee of federal agencies formed to plan for the effective use of the law.
The Defense Production Act essentially empowers the government to enact a kind of centralized economic planning. While they can't take over private companies, they can direct those companies to prioritize certain manufacturing needs, or oversee distribution of products. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, with the country facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, it could be used to speed up production for things like N95 masks and ventilators. The government could essentially commandeer manufacturing lines to make sure that all the necessary individual parts are being produced and then moved in a timely manner to a place where they could then be assembled and distributed.
As Reuters described it in March:
A White House official confirmed that the administration was exploring the use of the law to spur manufacturing of protective gear. Both the DHS official and the White House requested anonymity to discuss the issue.
"Let's say 'Company A' makes a multitude of respiratory masks but they spend 80% of their assembly lines on masks that painters wear and only 20% on the N95," the White House official said. "We will have the ability to tell corporations, 'No, you change your production line so it is now 80% of the N95 masks and 20% of the other.'"
"It allows you to basically direct things happening that need to get done," the official added.
But that's apparently a privilege reserved for weapons of war, rather than tools for saving lives. The Times article also includes this quote from Larry Hall, the former director of the Defense Production Act program division at FEMA:
What's more important? Building an aircraft carrier or a frigate using priority ratings or saving a hundred thousand lives using priorities for ventilators? If we used the president's logic, most of our economy is already nationalized. But it isn't.
The White House did use the DPA this past Friday, March 27, to instruct General Motors to focus production on ventilators, although the announcement came several hours after General Motors had already announced their own plans to do so. I suppose the argument here is that the President didn't need to invoke the DPA if he could convince General Motors to follow his lead without any legal action. But considering how much money our country spends on defense contractors, I can't imagine that those other hundreds of thousands of instances of DPA-in-action could not have also been resolved without a direct federal order.
Wartime Production Law Has Been Used Routinely, but Not With Coronavirus [ Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Ana Swanson / The New York Times]
U.S. mulls using sweeping powers to ramp up production of coronavirus protective gear [Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper / Reuters]
Image: Julphar.uae/Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)