Baby formula, body armor, biofuel: How Biden and other presidents used the Defense Production Act

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When Joe Biden pushed America's businesses to boost manufacturing of baby formula and solar panel parts and jumpstart mining for minerals needed in electric vehicle batteries, he relied on a unique, decades-old presidential authority that can draw big headlines and score political points while wielding unilateral power.

The Defense Production Act, enacted in 1950 at the start of the Korean War, is an authority the president has to order private business to prioritize and produce goods needed for the national defense, emergency preparedness and to recover from natural disasters.

If it sounds familiar, it's because former President Donald Trump leaned on the DPA in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase production of life-saving medical equipment, like ventilators and masks.

Biden has exercised the authority often – notably so, experts say – and drawn criticism and raised concerns he is using it as an end-run around Congress.

Biden's use of the DPA: Biden turned to a wartime power his first day in office. Will he rely on it even more?

White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said Biden is committed to using "every lever at his disposal" and "he has not hesitated to invoke the Defense Production Act where it is appropriate and within his authority to do so."

History shows Biden and Trump are far from the first commanders in chief to use the law. Barack Obama used it, as did George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Here are some notable instances when modern presidents authorized the use of the Defense Production Act:

Jimmy Carter

Synthetic fuel 

President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act in September 1980 to jumpstart production of synthetic fuel as part of an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. Carter was facing daunting reelection prospects with the economy reeling from sky-high inflation and soaring gas prices amid an oil crisis triggered by a decline in Iranian oil output. The order authorized “immediate financial aid” to the synthetic fuel industry while the federal government set up an agency authorized by Congress to shore up production going forward. Carter lost his reelection bid, President Ronald Reagan reduced funding of the effort, and it ultimately crumbled after oil supplies increased and prices dropped.

Bill Clinton

Electricity shortage

On his last full day in office, President Bill Clinton authorized the Department of Energy to use the Defense Production Act to prevent electricity blackouts in central and northern California. The department ordered suppliers to continue selling gas to Pacific Gas & Electric at contracted rates and without guarantees, despite the utility's precarious financial condition at the time, and instructed PG&E to use the fuel for high-priority purposes like electricity generation. Lawmakers reviewed the use of the Defense Production Act and questioned whether it was misused, unfairly prioritized California and artificially controlled prices.

George W. Bush

Body armor 

Under President George W. Bush, administration officials said the Defense Production Act was used “extensively and successfully” to secure materials for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including for body armor. The Bush administration had failed to provide enough armored vests to troops during the invasion of Iraq in April 2003, prompting the Pentagon to promise all would be outfitted by the end of that year. The administration undertook a “very aggressive effort” to speed up production of the vests, the GAO determined, and all troops in Iraq had been issued body armor by January 2004. Still, Democrats pilloried Bush for the shortfall during his reelection campaign in 2004, and Hillary Clinton blasted the failure during her run for the presidency in 2008.

President Bush talks with a crew from Alabama Power Company during a tour to assess damage from Hurricane Katrina, Monday, Sept. 5, 2005, in Poplarville, Miss. The crew is in Mississippi to repair power lines. (AP Photo/The Hattiesburg American, George Clark)
President Bush talks with a crew from Alabama Power Company during a tour to assess damage from Hurricane Katrina, Monday, Sept. 5, 2005, in Poplarville, Miss. The crew is in Mississippi to repair power lines. (AP Photo/The Hattiesburg American, George Clark)

Hurricane Katrina

The Bush administration invoked authorities under the Defense Production Act to prioritize orders for materials needed to rebuild floodwalls and other infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. Speeding up the orders helped the Army Corps of Engineers complete the massive civil works project in three years,  according to a Defense Production Act report to Congress. Such a project normally would have taken eight to 10 years. Prioritization under the act also expedited delivery of critical railroad equipment needed to restore rail service after the hurricane.

Barack Obama

Armored vehicles

Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon used his delegated authority under the Defense Production Act in an “accelerated acquisition program” to prioritize production of mine-resistant all-terrain vehicles designed for the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. The program, which began in 2009, delivered more than 5,700 ATVs to Afghanistan by August 2010, according to a memo from Ashton Carter, then-undersecretary of Defense in charge of acquisitions.

Biofuels

The Obama administration used the act to spend more than $200 million to build biofuel refineries. The White House hailed the investment in 2014 as “important progress” on Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” and said three companies would construct the facilities. One in Nevada would convert garbage to fuel, another on the Gulf Coast would convert fat or oil to fuel and a third in Oregon would use wood cuttings to make fuel. The plants would be operational in 2016 and produce upwards of 100 million gallons of fuel at prices competitive to gas, the Department of Energy said at the time.

Critics say Obama improperly used national defense as a pretext and funneled money to pet initiatives that went nowhere. A USA TODAY review found that as of July 2022, one company had yet to break ground and another was looking for more money to finish construction. The third finished constructing a plant but hasn't produced biofuel.

Two of the companies, Emerald Biofuels and Red Rock Biofuels, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. The third, Fulcrum BioEnergy, told USA TODAY that federal funding helped with construction of its plant in McCarran, Nevada, completed in July 2021, and the company is now focused on the final step of trying to convert garbage to fuel.

Donald Trump

The COVID-19 pandemic

President Donald Trump reluctantly used the Defense Production Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although his administration previously used the act for military and natural disaster purposes, he suggested forcing corporations to make products was like “nationalizing our businesses.”

Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on March 18, 2020 – shortly after House Democrats urged him to use it for medical supplies and the same day Biden criticized him for not invoking the act sooner. Trump used the act to allocate and prioritize production of medical supplies like ventilators, manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and produce N95 masks.

Still, a 2020 Congressional Research Service study reported his administration's use of the Defense Production Act for COVID-19 response was “sporadic and relatively narrow.”

U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Meat and poultry plants

A week after industry executives asked the Trump administration to help keep meat-processing plants open despite COVID-19 outbreaks among workers in April 2020, Trump issued an executive order authorizing the secretary of Agriculture to use authorities under the act to make sure meat and poultry facilities continued to operate.

Trump wanted "a continued supply of protein for Americans" after some plants were forced to shut down to stem infection. He designated meat and poultry critical and strategic materials under the law. The USDA said it would work with federal, state and local officials to keep the facilities open and operating safely. During the first year of the pandemic, USA TODAY reported, 45,000 meatpacking workers contracted COVID and 239 died.

Joe Biden

The COVID-19 pandemic

Biden invoked the Defense Production Act on his first full day in office to fill any shortfalls of pandemic-response supplies and went on to issue a series of authorizations under the act for COVID-19. They included orders to speed up vaccine production, increase the supply of COVID-19 tests, and produce personal protective equipment and other medical supplies.

Large-capacity batteries

As part of his response to increasing gas prices earlier this year, Biden used the Defense Production Act to boost domestic production of materials used in large-capacity batteries for electric vehicles and storage. He said the country needs to reduce its dependence on unreliable foreign sources for the materials, such as lithium and cobalt. China currently dominates production of the minerals and batteries. Biden directed the secretary of Defense to take steps to ensure they can be sourced in the United States instead. The president's infrastructure law passed in 2021 included $7.5 billion for the deployment of electric vehicle charging stations across the country.

Baby formula 

After COVID-19 supply-chain issues and the closure of a key manufacturing facility in February caused infant formula shortages across the country, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up formula production in May. The president authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to order suppliers to prioritize production and delivery of ingredients to formula manufacturers over other customers.

Biden was criticized for not acting sooner to head off the baby formula shortage. Administration officials knew months earlier about problems at Abbott Nutrition’s Michigan plant, which shuttered after inspectors found deadly bacteria at the facility.

The president said he wasn’t alerted about the issues until April. The White House contends that the DPA allowed manufacturers to increase production by as much as a third.

Clean energy technologies 

Biden issued a series of orders in June invoking the Defense Production Act to increase domestic manufacturing of solar panel components and other energy technologies. The orders authorize federal investments to spur production of the components, as well as transformers for the electrical grid, and insulation and heat pumps that increase energy efficiency in buildings.

On the same day, Biden waived tariffs on foreign-made solar components, making it easier for U.S. solar project developers to buy parts overseas. The Commerce Department had launched an investigation of imported parts in March, triggering uncertainty that stalled hundreds of solar projects that the White House said are crucial to reaching Biden’s climate goals.

Analysts and lawmakers criticized the orders as a fix for his administration's shortfalls and an end-run around Congress, which has continued to stonewall sweeping climate legislation. Researchers at the conservative Heritage Foundation called Biden’s use of the act an “egregious misuse of executive power.”

Hasan, the White House spokesman, said Biden's actions were appropriate, within his authority and "have and continue to deliver results.”

The White House said no money was spent without congressional approval – Congress provides a general pot of money for emergency use under the act.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, when Biden issued the energy orders in June, said they were "particularly urgent given the impact of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on the global energy supply, as well as the intensifying – the impacts of climate change on the electricity grid."

She said Biden would continue calling on Congress "to make sure that they are also acting."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Defense Production Act handy for presidents, including Trump and Biden