"We need the product now," Andrew Cuomo, New York's Democratic governor, said on Sunday. "We have cries from hospitals around the state. I've spoken to governors around the country, and they're in the same situation."
The federal government could intervene using its authority under the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that gives the president legal power over industrial production like Franklin D. Roosevelt had in World War II and Harry Truman wanted during the Korean War. But the decision to use that authority would have to come from President Donald Trump, and so far he has mostly resisted, saying the private sector is doing enough on its own.
An increasingly loud chorus of officials and public health experts disagree. They say the federal government needs to take more control over the production and supply of medical equipment and some wonder why Trump didn't take this action weeks ago when it could have had a much bigger impact.
What This 1950 Law Actually Does
Through a series of reauthorizations and executive actions, the Defense Production Act has evolved so that presidents can now use it for all kinds of crises, including natural disasters. In 2001, for example, President George W. Bush used some of its powers to make sure material for power generation and transmission got to California during a wave of blackouts.
In popular lore, the Defense Production Act lets the federal government commandeer factories so that they start churning out equipment for war or some other kind of emergency. But that's not quite how it works.
Instead, the law gives the president a set of narrow but powerful tools for organizing and increasing the production of goods necessary to address a national crisis.
These tools include emergency authority for the federal government to make purchases, or offer loan guarantees for purchasers, in order to create a demand for goods that manufacturers might not otherwise produce. This is precisely the sort of financial commitment that many experts have said would give industry incentive to ramp up production of the medical equipment in such short supply right now.
Under another part of the Defense Production Act, the president can issue a declaration that certain goods are essential, which gives federal contracts priority over other orders. This is precisely what Pritzker couldn't do when he was on the phone with that ventilator manufacturer.
The same provision also protects against price gouging, by allowing the federal government to insist that manufacturers sell goods at no more than the production cost plus a modest markup.
Even so, the prospect of giving the federal government more control over production ------ the corporate community and its allies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have lobbied the Trump administration not to use the Defense Production Act, according to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.