The administration has all the authority it needs to produce medical supplies and prepare for a potential vaccine, argues James E Baker in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
Mr Baker, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Security Policy and Law, is a former Marine infantry officer, legal adviser to the National Security Council and chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He was a Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies prior to his current post at Syracuse University.
Every Marine knows better than to pull a knife in a gunfight. But so far, that appears to be the federal government’s approach to battling Covid-19. The president has “invoked” the Defense Production Act, but the government has not used the full authority of the act. There is a difference between invoking a law and using it, just as there is a difference between talk and action.
Governors and health officials tell us that there is a profound gap between the protective equipment, hospital equipment and testing resources that are needed (and will be needed) and what is available (or in the pipeline). Bill Gates reminds us that we will need to produce millions, perhaps billions, of doses of vaccine in 12 to 18 months. This isn’t a passing crisis; we will need more of everything in two months, six months and maybe years.
Don’t let debate over the details of General Motors’ and Ventec’s honorable effort to build more ventilators hide the bottom line: The federal government has all the authority it needs to close the supply gap, allocate resources among states, and prepare for the production and distribution of the vaccine to come. Until the federal government demonstrates—with statistics, contracts and timelines—that the gap is closed and the vaccine pipeline is ready, we should ask: Why isn’t the government bringing its full arsenal to the fight?
The DPA’s authorities go beyond prioritizing contracts and manufacturing supplies. Its allocation authority addresses the problem of states’ competing against one another for scarce resources based on market mechanisms. The federal government can allocate equipment and supplies based on actual need and best public-health practices. The DPA’s industry assessment authority can be used to measure production and distribution capacity, remove blind spots, plan efficiently and recreate a supply chain at home. The federal government can determine now which entities could produce vaccines while it plans for their ethical allocation. The government can then use the DPA’s Title III incentive authorities to issue loans, offer antitrust protection and guarantee purchases, creating a secure market for masks, tests and vaccines.
The law is so broad in places that it is sometimes referred to as a “commandeering” authority. Lawyers prefer to say the president would act at the zenith of his authority under the paradigm presented in Justice Jackson’s concurrence in the Supreme Court’s landmark Youngstown case. But its use is not as extraordinary as some suggest, and it is not commandeering. The Defense Department alone uses the prioritization authority some 300,000 times a year, while the government uses Title III incentives 20 to 30 times per year. Although the allocation authority has not been used since the Cold War, some civilian airliners and freighters remain allocated for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Nor does exercise of the prioritization and allocation authority equate to state ownership. Under the act, corporations are paid fair market value for their products. Any actual “commandeering” of production would require just compensation under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. Moreover, price controls under the DPA require a joint resolution of Congress signed into law by the president.
The DPA also contains built-in safeguards. A majority of its provisions expire every five years. That is why it has been reauthorized by Congress over 50 times since its passage in 1950. Congress can decline to do so or do so with amendments when the act comes up for reauthorization in 2025, or sooner. The law also gives federal courts jurisdiction over disputes including the power to determine and award fair market value and forbid the executive branch from using the statute improperly. If a business feels the government is overreaching or unrealistic in its timelines, it can seek relief in court and do so on an emergency basis. Finally, the government reports annually on the DPA’s use: Not only will the Congress know how the act is used, the public will, too.
What about liability? The first answer is to make equipment that works. The second answer is Title 42, giving the secretary of health and human services authority to determine that the coronavirus pandemic “constitutes a public health emergency,” recommend use of “covered countermeasures” to fight the pandemic and in doing so grant broad protection from liability under both state and federal law, except in the case of “willful misconduct.” There are other solutions as well, like special legislation, indemnification clauses to contracts, the government contract defense and, if all else fails, waivers.
Here’s the big picture: In times of crisis, when lives are at stake, lawyers and policymakers are supposed to find solutions to problems—to get to yes with honor and within the law—and not to create obstacles.
State and local authorities are imploring the federal government to use the authority it has to secure our medical supply chain. So far, the administration appears to have responded like a parent doling out candy to a child: one piece at a time. This is an “all hands on deck” moment, not merely to flatten the curve but to leap ahead of the curve. America was once the arsenal of democracy; the DPA can help make us the arsenal of public health.
If I were advising the president (or the secretaries with delegated authority), I would say this: Please, tell the public what the need is and how the need will be met today, next week and in the months to come. What specifically has been contracted for, in how many units and on what timeline? Where there is a gap between need and supply, use the DPA to close it.
I’ve never heard of a commander who complained about having too many tanks or who asked for a few artillery shells and not one too many. It’s high time we fought the virus the American way: with everything we’ve got.
James E Baker, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Security Policy and Law, is a former Marine infantry officer, legal adviser to the National Security Council and chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He was a Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies prior to his current post at Syracuse University.