Minnesota-based 3M and the White House had themselves a “saga” over the last several days, but it ended “very happily,” in the words of President Donald Trump. That’s a change in tone from last week, when among the kinder thoughts emanating from the administration was that the president was “very disappointed in 3M” and had clobbered it with an exercise of the Defense Production Act.
At issue were N95 filtration masks, of which the company is the world’s largest manufacturer. The masks, known as respirators, fit tightly over the nose and mouth and filter out at least 95% of particulates. They’re desperately needed by health professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The company makes about 1 billion such masks each year, mostly overseas, and already had planned to double production, with the ramp-up starting in 60 to 90 days. Under an agreement with the administration announced Monday, the company will import an additional 166.5 million masks over the next three months, primarily from its facility in China, to be used in the United States.
In a crisis in which American health care workers needed help yesterday, that’s not nothing. But it’s worth noting, as government health researchers did in 2015, that anywhere between 2 billion and 7 billion respirators could be needed in this country over the course of a pandemic like this one.
Which party to the dispute was right? Perhaps both. 3M was concerned that diverting masks from international partners could lead to retaliation, with other countries withholding supplies the U.S. needs. The company also feared “consequences on a humanitarian level, as we are often the sole provider of these respirators around the world,” its chief executive, Mike Roman, told CNBC on Friday. Under the agreement, 3M’s capacity to send respirators to Canada and Latin America is retained.
The administration, meanwhile, was under significant pressure to increase the supply of masks here and now.
We’ll credit both the president and our home-state global manufacturer for reaching an agreement that balanced concerns. But the heart of the matter, ultimately, is how effectively the Defense Production Act is deployed. The Star Tribune Editorial Board argued March 25 that Trump “must make full use” of the act. Instead, the administration has used it most visibly as leverage, or plumage, or a combination thereof. (Preceding the 3M kerfuffle was Trump’s declaration that GM would “accept, perform and prioritize federal contracts for ventilators.” That disagreement also was smoothed over within days, though to what end isn’t clear.)
It’s always hard to tell with Trump what’s for show and what is in some sense strategy. The administration has praised companies’ voluntary work during the crisis and has been averse to “putting the heavy hand of government down.” But there also seems to be a school of thought that making examples of some companies will rouse the team spirit among all.
The goal of using the DPA in a crisis, however, should be simply to identify, coordinate and meet production needs. The effort need not be theatric. If it is to be sustainable, better that it is technocratic.
There’s more readers should know about the DPA: First, it’s been used extensively by administrations including Trump’s to prioritize supplies needed by the military — hundreds of thousands of times in recent years. There’s little justification for throttling it now. Second, the various components of the act — its “titles” — allow an administration to ease cost and logistical burdens on the industries it’s mobilizing.
As former appellate court clerk Jane Chong writes in the Atlantic, the DPA “is not an authoritarian alternative to good corporate citizenship. It empowers the government to spur and synchronize what would otherwise amount to inadequate, piecemeal efforts to equip the country to fight the pandemic.”