We all breathed a sigh of relief when President Donald Trump and his administration finally said they would use the Defense Production Act to ramp up orders for tests and medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.
But we forgot one important fact. We're talking about the Trump administration.
And what little we already know about the president's use of the Defense Production Act — a Truman-era law — is not encouraging, according to consumer watchdog and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-California.
"Unlike most government contracts, DPA orders are not public documents, leaving Americans in the dark about one of the administration's key tools in its COVID-19 response," Porter wrote in a Tuesday opinion piece in The Washington Post. She ticked off a few examples:
Read Katie Porter's letter to the White HouseView
* A $96 million no-bid contract for respirators that went to a company with no background in medical supplies. According to federal procurement documents, the contract was ordered by the White House. (More on this later.)
* A contract for N95 masks, worth $55 million, went to a tactical training firm whose parent company has filed for bankruptcy, also without any background in medical supplies, Porter wrote. "At a per-unit cost of more than $5, the Trump administration is paying nearly eight times the standard value of the masks."
* The Department of Veterans Affairs awarded a $75,000 contract for masks to MyPillow, whose chief executive, Michael Lindell, is a major GOP donor. Porter noted that MyPillow says it cannot start work on the contract until it finds a subcontractor.
Most government contracts are made public because transparency with taxpayer dollars is the best way to deter waste, fraud and abuse of federal resources. DPA orders, however, were designed for wartime and normally concern sensitive military technology, making them understandably secret.
But this not wartime. And the need to scrounge for medical gowns, masks or a cure is no matter of secrecy.
What's more, Trump has dragged his feet in using the Defense Production Act for what's probably the most critical need of all — tests. He announced he'd use the act on March 27 to increase ventilator production but didn't finalize the order until April 8. Now, even while trying to bully the country's reopening, he waited until April 19 and 40,000 American deaths to issue an order for test swabs.
The Defense Production Act, passed in 1950, empowers a president to go to the front of the line with private manufacturers and tell them what products to prioritize. As for secrecy? There should be none in this day and situation. The DPA should not "give the benefit of the doubt to a president who has ignored congressional oversight, fired independent government watchdogs and nominated a White House insider to oversee the corporate bailout fund," Porter wrote in The Post.
Katie Porter knows what she's talking about. The 46-year-old divorced mother of three is an American law professor, attorney and rabid consumer advocate who grew up in a small farming community in Iowa, studied first at Yale, then at Harvard Law School under current U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, where she graduated magna cum laude with her doctorate in law in 2001. Her textbook, "Modern Consumer Law," examines consumer laws in light of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And in 2012, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris appointed Porter as the state's independent monitor of banks in a nationwide $25 billion mortgage settlement.
On April 21, Porter wrote to White House Trade and Manufacturing Director (and Defense Production Act Policy Coordinator) Peter Navarro, requesting a full list of DPA contracts issued in response to the pandemic, including award date, quantity, per-unit cost and other information.
"The American people need clear, unambiguous answers about what the Trump Administration is doing in response to the coronavirus ... Congress needs answers as well. As part of the CARES Act, Congress added $1 billion to the [Defense Production Act Fund], in addition to the $64.4 million appropriated for Fiscal Year 2020. Despite this level of funding, recent news reports suggest it is not being spent to address COVID-19. The country cannot reopen without a thorough testing process in place, both for identification of new cases, and for antibodies in those who may have been infected, and the administration should be using the DPA to ensure testing supplies are available in sufficient quantities."
The administration claims it has enough tests, but in fact we don't know how many tests we have, how many have been ordered, how many are in production and how much we're paying for them.
And we don't know why the White House ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to award a $96 million no-bid respirator deal to a Canadian defense contractor, AirBoss. The contract called for the AirBoss to make 100,000 powered respirators and filters for New York and deliver them by July 31. Really. July 31.
And that was just one of more than $760 million worth of "deals" reported in recent weeks either by media groups such as ProPublica or by company news releases. You really couldn't make this stuff up to sound any more absurd.
This is not the time for the Trump Administration to play, in Rep. Porter's words, "guessing games. She is demanding Defense Production Act transparency as a key step toward stopping the deception and starting the recovery. We're with her 100 percent.