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:
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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.