Senior Democrats call on FEMA, HHS to tap DOD industrial base for COVID-19 response

By Tony Bertuca / April 9, 2020 at 12:12 PM

Three House committee chairmen are urging the Trump administration, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Health and Human Services Department, to begin using the Defense Department's industrial base to produce medical supplies needed to stem the outbreak of COVID-19 and re-open the U.S. economy.

In a letter to the president, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) say they are worried about the "the lack of a clear, coordinated strategy" to produce and acquire the medical supplies needed to respond to COVID-19.

"As you know, the response to this crisis requires a whole-of-government effort, which means FEMA and HHS must use every tool at their disposal, including utilizing the contracting expertise and manpower available at the Department of Defense and other federal agencies through necessary assisted acquisitions, interagency agreements, and logistical support," the letter states.

The lawmakers say they want to see contracts issued immediately.

"With a clear strategy to issue contracts for PPE, ventilators, and testing to identify positive cases and antibodies for those who have had the virus, we can assist the healthcare professionals in dire need," they wrote. "More can be done to leverage industry and researchers' ability to help curb this pandemic."

Smith, on a call with reporters yesterday, said he is concerned DOD is not receiving enough "demand signals" from FEMA and HHS.

"They are in a position to do a lot more than they're doing," he said. "DOD has not been forward-leaning on that issue. They just haven't."

For instance, Smith said he thinks the nation will require tens of millions of cotton swabs to continuously test American workers before federal and state governments can ease economically costly social distancing policies. He asked why DOD isn't bringing its enormous industrial and logistical capabilities to bear.

"DOD is not going over to HHS and saying, 'Hey, here's what we could do,'" Smith said yesterday. "I feel very strongly that we have missed some opportunities here because none of the parts of this have been forward-leaning enough."

In their letter, the lawmakers note the president has "partially" invoked the Defense Production Act to compel some commercial companies to produce ventilators. But General Motors recently said its 30,000 ventilators will likely not be ready until August.

The lawmakers said it is time to utilize "other authorities available under the DPA" to prioritize what equipment must be produced.

"By exercising prioritization mechanisms under DPA, the administration has both the opportunity to directly protect front line workers and incentivize states to further coordinate with each other with the knowledge that additional vital protective equipment orders will be fulfilled," they wrote. "Every day that goes by without the award of targeted contracts increases risk of damage to our nation's health. Contracts would provide a clear demand signal from the federal government regarding the rapidly growing need to incentivize companies to pivot to producing medical supplies."