Politics dictionary

Defense Production Act

[ dih-fens pruh-duhk-shuhn akt ]

What is the Defense Production Act?

The Defense Production Act is a congressional act that gives the president certain powers in order to ensure national defense or to respond to a national emergency. These powers include the ability to require businesses to prioritize government contracts and the ability to provide loans and other incentives to companies in order to increase production of essentials. 

Several presidents have invoked the Defense Production Act in recent times. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush invoked it in response to energy crises in California. President Barack Obama invoked it in order to invest in biofuels and to combat Chinese cyberhacking. President Donald Trump invoked it in response to a hurricane in Puerto Rico, in order to fund the Space Force, and as a response to medical equipment shortages during the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2021, President Joe Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to increase production of equipment needed for vaccinations.

Related words

national emergency, Supremacy Clause, 10th Amendment, implied powers

Where does Defense Production Act come from?

The Defense Production Act was passed by Congress in 1950. The act was motivated by a letter written to Congress from President Harry Truman after the outbreak of the Korean War. Truman stated the United States and the United Nations had an urgent need for additional military supplies and equipment in order to defend the Republic of Korea against aggression from the North Korean People’s Army.

In the initial version of the act, the Defense Production Act gave a large number of powers to the president for the purposes of “national defense,” such as the ability to set prices of certain products and forcefully settle labor disputes. In 1953, Congress allowed many of these powers to be removed from the act by not reauthorizing them.  

The two most important powers that the current version of the Defense Production Act gives the president when invoked are:

  1. The authority to require private businesses to accept and prioritize government contracts and orders.
  2. The authority to give loans, direct payments, or other incentives to private business to increase the production of essential products. 

Unsurprisingly, the act limits when exactly the president is able to use these powers. The president is only allowed to force companies to make items directly related to national defense and only if these items cannot be produced any other way. In addition to national defense, the act has been invoked in response to terrorism, natural disasters, and other national emergencies.

The Defense Production Act was invoked by two different presidents in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that began impacting the United States in early 2020: in 2020, President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to order testing supplies, masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other medical supplies that were in short supply after the COVID-19 outbreak. However, Trump backed away from using the powers given to him by the act to force non-medical companies to use their resources to produce medical equipment or other supplies. 

In 2021, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act in order to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines by expanding the production of syringes and other equipment needed to make vaccines. Biden expressed a willingness to use whatever powers were available to him as part of the act in order to speed vaccine production.

Examples of Defense Production Act

I'm urging President Trump to fully utilize the Defense Production Act to immediately prioritize the production of protective gear and testing supplies. With a definitive act from the commander-in-chief, companies nationwide can start to step up and do their part to help.
@NewYorkStateAG, March 24, 2020
In the flurry of White House activity last week, scientists and epidemiologists hailed the actions Biden took with the stroke of his pen—which included harnessing the Defense Production Act to produce more vaccine supplies like needles, syringes and PPE ...
Maeve Reston, CNN, January 24, 2021

Who uses Defense Production Act?

For the most part, presidents have invoked the Defense Production Act only as a last resort.

The Defense Production Act is sometimes referred to as the acronym DPA for short.

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