Cuomo calls on Trump to invoke Defense Production Act in fight against coronavirus

WASHINGTON — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed frustration Tuesday that President Trump has not more forcefully marshaled the power of the federal government to procure desperately needed medical equipment, rebutting the notion that to do so would be “antibusiness.”

“It’s not antibusiness. Nobody’s talking about ‘change the governmental philosophy,’” Cuomo said in reference to Trump’s hesitation to use the Defense Production Act (DPA). “By the way, the businesses would welcome it.”

Cuomo was responding to comments by Trump on Sunday in which the president said at a press briefing that if he used the DPA it would be the equivalent of “nationalizing” entire industries, and said that went against free-market principles. Trump said that when he announced the use of the DPA last week, “it sent tremors through our business community.”

At the same briefing, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said that the invocation of the DPA had given him “quiet leverage” to use in conversations with private business, but that voluntary cooperation from business was sufficient.

“What we’ve seen with this outpouring of volunteers from private enterprise: We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down,” Navarro said.

The Defense Production Act, which dates back to the Cold War, allows the president to pressure or even force private industries to produce products deemed necessary for the nation’s defense.

Jeff Bialos, a veteran Washington attorney who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial affairs in the Clinton White House, told Yahoo News last week that it could be used “to incentivize a company who already makes [emergency medical supplies] to make more of them.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center that will house a temporary hospital in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks Tuesday against a backdrop of medical supplies at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. (John Minchillo/AP)

Cuomo, speaking to the press on Tuesday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan, where officials are setting up a 1,000-bed auxiliary hospital for coronavirus patients, said New York is woefully short of supplies.

New York has 7,000 ventilators but needs 30,000 more, he said. He added that the state has 53,000 hospital beds but needs 140,000, and has only 3,000 intensive care unit beds when it actually needs 40,000, based on current projections.

Cuomo dismissed the notion that private businesses are doing enough voluntarily. “I look at actions, not words,” he said. “They’re doing the supplies? Here’s my question. Where are they? Where are the ventilators? Where are the gowns? Where’s the PPEs [personal protective equipment]? Where are the masks? Where are they? Where are they if they’re doing it?”

Ford Motor Company’s executive chairman Bill Ford said Tuesday that his company would be producing 1,000 respirator masks per month and 100,000 face shields per week. Ford also said the company is hoping to deliver “hundreds of thousands” of basic ventilators, which help critically ill patients breathe.

He indicated that some of these would be made for other countries, such as Britain, and that Ford hoped to deliver some of these by “early June.”

Many lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have called on the president to use his DPA powers to force the private sector to produce supplies to fight the virus. But at least one prominent Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has added his voice. Cruz sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar last Friday urging him to use the DPA powers to acquire as many more ventilators as possible.

“I applaud your efforts to ‘coordinate closely with private suppliers [and] health care purchasers ... to ensure that resources are going where they’re needed,’” Cruz wrote, “but in this moment you should not hesitate to use the significant powers of the Defense Production Act delegated to you by the President to do what is necessary to ensure that Americans who contract this virus are not denied life-saving care because hospitals lack the appropriate machinery. Time is of the essence.”

Trump has sent mixed signals time and again, going back and forth between saying he was invoking the DPA and then qualifying that he would use it only if he had to.

Late last week, Trump said he was going to use the DPA to acquire masks but gave no details on how many and from whom. On Tuesday morning, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the DPA was going to be used for the first time to get virus test kits, a contradiction from what Trump said a few days before.

Meanwhile, experts on the DPA have said that the time to really have used it was weeks, or months, ago, when there was still time to ramp up production ahead of the heavy onset of cases.

And a month ago Trump administration officials at HHS discussed using DPA powers to increase supplies of key protective equipment such as masks, gowns, face shields and gloves. This is in line with the way the federal government has known it can respond to the threat of a public health emergency for over a decade.

In 2008, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the DPA and stated that “HHS officials anticipated that they could use the authority to place priority ratings on contracts prior to an emergency for a selected number of health resources needed in an emergency, such as masks, respirators, and antibiotics.”

But lobbying from the business sector has resonated with Trump advisers who are close to private enterprise and skeptical of anything that might be deemed antibusiness or out of line with free-market capitalism.

It was this very thinking that Cuomo sought to address on Tuesday.

“I speak to the businesses. You know what they say? ‘I’ll do it but I need start-up capital. I can’t turn my factory overnight into a ventilator manufacturing company. I have to buy equipment. I have to find personnel. … Will you give me the start-up capital? Will you give me an order that says if I go through all this you will buy X number of units?’” he said.

“It’s actually a pro-business mentality, not an antibusiness mentality.”


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