The Defense Production Act has been gaining press in the headlines recently due to its being tapped as part of one of many executive orders signed by President Biden in the first forty-eight hours of his presidency. President Biden is citing the Defense Production Act – originally signed in 1950 – as grounds to press private industry to put resources and labor to use creating supplies needed to combat the pandemic.
These supplies – masks, ventilators, vaccines, to name a probable few – are sorely needed in order to contain the threat of the coronavirus, prevent its spread, and ensure that the health and wellness of American citizens and residents is preserved. However, these supplies also symbolizes a broader preservation of national security.
The importance of President Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act – both symbolically and practically – is why I have decided that it should be the subject of this week’s policy memo.
Since it’s inception in response to the military actions of the Korean War, the Defense Production Act has been reauthorized and referred to numerously into present-day. It’s primary function is to give the executive branch of government – the branch consisting of the president, their cabinet, and the agencies they oversee – the capacity and authority to redirect industry goals and resources for the purpose of addressing pressing national security issues.
This particular piece of legislation seems to be upheld across partisan lines: from the time of its being penned, it has been supported as a necessary amendment to and reiteration of presidential power.
The Defense Production Act consists primarily of three key executive authorizations: the legislation allows the president to (1) induce private industry to set itself upon the tasks designated for national security purposes, (2) establish new regulations, executive orders, agencies and other mandates as needed for the purpose of addressing national security concerns, and (3) preside over the private economy with greater control in order to ensure that limited resources needed to address national security purposes do not run dry due to, in part, price gouging and other forms of unethical economic manipulation. I will go over each piece as it relates to the current situation that the Biden situation is attempting to grapple with as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The three primary authorities given to President Biden and his cabinet through the Defense Production Act have already been invoked by the president in the ten executive orders he is set to sign as part of his overarching plan to combat the COVID pandemic. His mandates – including accelerating the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines and requiring masks to be worn on public transportation nationally – will be given greater power with his invocation of the Defense Production Act.
The concern here is not with the legitimacy of its usage, but with the political connotations and spin with which the decision and following actions will be received. President Biden is currently entering a climate that is still highly polarized and which even the president described as an “uncivil war” in his inaugural address.
This concern is highlighted by one Georgia representative’s decision to file Articles of Impeachment against President Biden less than a week into his first term; the transition of power from the Trump administration to the Biden administration was fraught with violence and social turmoil. Ensuring that a politically turbulent social moment – one punctuated by the COVID pandemic national security concerns – is able to flow into more peaceful times, requires a gentle but direct approach to the very social issues that brought us to this point.
My first and most pressing policy recommendation is simple: encourage scientific literacy.
Although the Pew Research Foundation has concluded that most Americans actually have a relatively decent level of scientific literacy in terms of fact recall and accuracy, this study also found that this scientific literacy is highly correlated with educational level. This is an important note as even when not accounting for the racial gap and the gender gap in education, there is still a marked drop off between those who receive high school diplomas and those who receive bachelors degrees or higher (“Educational Attainment in the United States” table).
I recommend that in addition to mandating private industry set aside resources for the construction and distribution of needed aid during the COVID pandemic, that the Biden administration also set aside funding for the distribution of literature and creation of videos for the layperson so that the general population has a more comprehensive understanding of how a vaccine is created, what goes into a vaccine, and other scientific, easy-to-comprehend pieces that will dispel the credibility of stubborn conspiracy theories and promote adherence to practices which will help combat the COVID pandemic.
My second recommendation is equally simple, but not so easy to implement given the polarized political climate: I recommend that the Biden administration host numerous events – virtual or otherwise – to reach out to any prominent Republican elected official who may be interested in working toward civility and bipartisan efforts to get the country back on track.
Because of the invocation of the Defense Production Act, it is possible that some members of the Republican party may feel their political stance threatened because of the critical nature of the move. I argue that it is just as necessary for our national security that our political leaders be able to discuss the ongoing issues facing our country regardless of political party affiliation. The Biden administration’s leading the call for civility between representatives, senators, and other political leaders would be a potent symbolic gesture, and one that would cement the seriousness of the call the president made for unity in his inaugural address as well.