Legislation Would Designate a Civilian Official to Oversee Acquisition of Medical Supplies, Bolster Transparency
Process of getting equipment to front-line workers during the coronavirus pandemic has been “absolute chaos” so far, bill sponsor says.
Senate Democrats announced a bill on Wednesday that would appoint a civilian official to oversee the Trump administration's acquisition process during the coronavirus pandemic and bolster oversight of contracting.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the "Medical Supply Transparency and Delivery Act" would lead to a more effective pandemic response by designating an official to oversee the medical supply chain and increasing public reporting on the procurement process. This act comes after the administration was initially slow to fully invoke the 1950 Defense Production Act to obtain much-needed medical supplies and equipment to combat the spread of the virus.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency tasked Rear Adm. John Polowczyk with overseeing the national supply chain, but Schumer called his leadership “insufficient.” Additionally, lawmakers and outside groups have been raising questions on the administration’s contracting methods.
“The Trump administration has created absolute chaos in the supply chain leaving frontline health care workers at hospitals and long term care facilities to fend for themselves,” Baldwin said. “Our legislation will help respond to this public health crisis and prepare for the future by unlocking the full authority and power of the Defense Production Act to scale up nationwide production of the testing supplies, personal protective equipment, and medical equipment our health care workers need to protect themselves, take care of patients and save lives.”
The legislation would require the Defense secretary, in consultation with the FEMA director, to appoint a civilian official to be the executive officer to oversee coronavirus acquisition logistics and advise the president on “utilizing the full authorities available” under the Defense Production Act. The Defense secretary can also authorize other uniformed and Defense civilian personnel to support the work.
The executive officer would have all federal acquisition authorities under the Defense Production Act and report to the FEMA director as well as work with the Homeland Security, Defense, Commerce, and Health and Human Services Departments. He or she would be required to “publicly post all states’ requests for assistance, metrics and criteria for amount and destination of distribution, metrics for determining hotspots and areas of future concern, and production and procurement benchmarks,” according to the bill’s text.
Among the other requirements, the executive officer, with officials at other agencies, would publish weekly reports on equipment needs, manufacturers and industry sectors that could fill orders and stockpiles that can be redistributed to new coronavirus hotspots. The position would be terminated 30 days after the official certifies to Congress that all states and territories’ needs are met and all federal stockpiles are replenished.
Additionally, the legislation would require the comptroller general of the United States to review the government’s response to the pandemic and make recommendations on how to better prepare for a future pandemic. It would also task the inspectors general council with designating an IG to oversee the implementation of the act.
“The president’s failure to federalize the medical supply chain has left states operating in a ‘Lord of the Flies’ environment in the middle of a global pandemic. Governors are forced to compete against each other while suppliers price-gouge,” Murphy said. “There’s zero transparency from the White House about how they’re allocating critical medical supplies, what is being produced, and how much is sent to the private market for purchase. And above all, we still don’t know who’s in charge.”
Some of the Trump administration’s recent coronavirus-related contracting activities have garnered attention. For example, the Veterans Affairs Department is spending almost $75,000 on masks from MyPillow, which is run by the president’s friend Mike Lindell, according to a purchase order on USASpending.gov, Politico reported on April 22. Lindell, who made what he called “off the cuff” remarks at a coronavirus briefing on March 30, said his company won’t make a profit on this.
Also, New York entered into a contract to obtain ventilators with an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley with no background in medical supplies, at the recommendation of the White House. The engineer tweeted at the president on March 27 and then “three days later, New York state paid Oren-Pines $69.1 million...for 1,450 ventilators—at an astonishing $47,656 per ventilator, at least triple the standard retail price of high-end models,” but the supplies never arrived. New York ended the contract and is attempting to recover the money it paid, according to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday.
On April 10, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Democrats led the Democratic caucus in writing to Vice President Mike Pence with concerns about the administration's acquisition, distribution and oversight of supplies during the pandemic. Among their questions was: “How, if at all, is the administration using the authorities granted by the Defense Production Act to direct private sector supply distribution efforts?” They asked for answers by April 17, but have not received a response yet.
Besides lawmakers, the watchdog American Oversight has filed several Freedom of Information Act requests on the administration's use of the production act and supplies acquisition. The organization said it’s "investigating whether mismanagement in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus has put lives at risk, and whether the White House’s attempted control of information has served the president’s own political interests over the health of the public.”
Murphy, Baldwin and Schumer are the lead sponsors of the bill that has 44 Democratic senators as co-sponsors. They said the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, Service Employees International Union, National Nurses United and United Steelworkers also support it.
Reps. Katie Porter, D-Calif.; Jason Crow, D-Colo.; Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.; and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, introduced a House companion bill on Wednesday.