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Yahoo News Explains: The Defense Production Act

On Thursday, President Biden said he is invoking the Defense Production Act as part of his strategy to combat the spread of the coronavirus that has killed 400,000 Americans. Peter Shulman, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, explains why the president is exercising this option and how it will be used.

Video Transcript

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JOE BIDEN: Today I'm signing an executive action to use the Defense Production Act and all other available authorities to direct all federal agencies and private industry to accelerate the making of everything that it needs to protect test vaccinate and take care of our people.

PETER SHULMAN: The Defense Production Act is a little known, little understood, but very powerful law that allows the federal government to mobilize the American economy in cases of emergencies. So the Defense Production Act was enacted back in 1950. Months after the beginning of the Korean War, the US was now clearly in this Cold War with the Soviet Union--

--And Congress decided that the government needed a more permanent mechanism for invoking and mobilizing the economy in case of a national emergency. Hence, the Defense Production Act, to really kind of make permanently available a system of emergency allocations for wartime uses.

JOE BIDEN: 400,000 Americans have died. That's more than have died in all of World War II, 400,000. This is a wartime undertaking.

PETER SHULMAN: President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act because of the national COVID emergency that we're still dealing with. The Defense Production Act after 1950, had been used mainly in national security contexts. There was one important deviation that happened in the 1970s when President Nixon invoked it in the context of the first oil crisis, which was not specifically a national security emergency, it was an economic crisis. But he relied on that authority to make sure that the federal government and the military were provided with fuel during the course of that particular emergency as well.

One thing that happened later, was Congress ultimately decided that there really were other kinds of circumstances beyond strictly military ones when the Defense Production Act might be appropriate. And the Department of Health and Human Services as the kind of major agency of the government that supervises all things having to do with public health, it was given the authority to activate Defense Production Act in cases that dealt with national urgency as related to public health.

So what President Biden has done is had his team look at where there were bottlenecks and supplies for dealing with the crisis right now. These have to do with supplies needed for vaccinations, things like syringes. But they're also things that have to do with supplies for testing, for personal protective equipment, N95 masks.

So what invoking the Defense Production Act right now could mean, is for example, the federal government could become the buyer of all vaccines supplies or all syringes and allocate them as needed to different parts of the country. I don't know if that's exactly what's going to happen, but that would be one option. They could make sure that companies that deal with the raw materials that go into syringes, or N95 masks or protective gowns or nitrile gloves, that those don't get diverted to other purposes until all the needs for the health crisis are met first.

So if that nitrile is used in furniture and chairs, it has to go to making all the gloves that are needed first before it could be used in other kinds of materials. So they've identified 12 items already that the Defense Production Act could apply to, and it's hopefully, going to make these supplies increase for the country.