Katie Porter, a Democrat, represents California’s 45th Congressional District in the U.S. House.

President Trump’s announced orders of medical supplies using the Defense Production Act (DPA) should be a source of relief. To reopen the country, we’ll need tests to detect the presence of both the coronavirus and possible signs of immunity, and DPA orders can provide those tests. However, unlike most government contracts, DPA orders are not public documents, leaving Americans in the dark about one of the administration’s key tools in its covid-19 response.

In any future coronavirus relief legislation, Congress must make the administration’s DPA orders public. What little we do know about the president’s use of this Truman-era law is not encouraging. A few examples:

In one case, a $96 million no-bid contract for respirators went to a company with no background in medical supplies. According to federal procurement documents, the contract was ordered by the White House.

A contract for N95 masks, worth $55 million, went to a tactical training firm whose parent company has filed for bankruptcy, also without any background in medical supplies. At a per-unit cost of more than $5, the Trump administration is paying nearly eight times the standard value of the masks.

This month the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded a $75,000 contract for masks to MyPillow, whose chief executive, Michael Lindell, is a major GOP donor. MyPillow says it cannot start work on the contract until it finds a subcontractor.

Most government contracts are made public because transparency with taxpayer dollars is the best way to deter waste, fraud and abuse of federal resources. DPA orders, which were designed for wartime and normally concern sensitive military technology, are understandably secret.

Congress passed the DPA at the height of the Korean War to accelerate the production of war materials. For much of its history, the DPA has lain dormant, used only for narrow needs, such resolving shortages of rare earth metals. Yet it exists for exactly the type of situation we find ourselves in — where an organized response from industry is vital to our national security.

The DPA empowers a president to go to the front of the line with private manufacturers and tell them what products to prioritize. It also allows the government to seize shipments of key items — such as personal protective equipment — from hoarders and importers.

But a law passed in 1950 did not anticipate a moment when every country was scrounging for medical gowns, masks and other protective equipment or was in the hunt for a cure to a new virus.

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (The Washington Post)

With so many lives on the line, it is imperative that Congress legislate transparency for the American public. This is not the time to give the benefit of the doubt to a president who has ignored congressional oversight, fired independent government watchdogs and nominated a White House insider to oversee the corporate bailout fund.

I wrote a letter to the White House last week asking for a complete accounting of DPA orders and an update on the funds remaining in a $1 billion reserve Congress authorized in the Cares Act specifically for the DPA. The public deserves better information than occasional news releases from the White House or from the companies that win the contracts.

The president has never been keen about the DPA. He announced on March 27 he would use the act to increase ventilator production, but did not finalize the order until April 8. Now, he wants to reopen the country, despite the fact that millions of tests would be required — tests we don’t seem to have. The president could have used the DPA to order the production of testing kits at a fair price and ensure timely delivery. Instead, he waited until last week, at which point 40,000 Americans had died, to issue an order for covid-19 tests.

The administration claims it has enough tests, but in fact we don’t know how many tests we have, how many have been ordered, how many are in production and how much we’re paying for them.

Now is not the time for guessing games. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead, and millions are out of work in part because Trump dragged his feet and misled the public about what his administration was doing and when.

Requiring DPA transparency is a key step toward stopping the deception and starting the recovery.

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