What is the Defense Production Act and when has it been used?

The law could be used to ramp up production of medical equipment

President Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act last week because of the growing coronavirus pandemic, but he has yet to use the law.

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"We'll be invoking the Defense Production Act just in case we need it," Trump said on Wednesday. "I think you all know what it is, and it can do a lot of good things if we need it."

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The law makes it easier for the private sector to ramp up the manufacturing of emergency supplies, including much-needed medical equipment. The act requires businesses to sign contracts or fulfill orders deemed necessary for national defense.

President Donald Trump speaks during press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor, whose agency is allocating supplies, told "Meet the Press" on Sunday the administration has not had to use the DPA as companies like 3M and General Motors have voluntarily jumped in.

"Will we have to use it? Maybe," Gaynor said. "We are working to source from all different kinds of manufacturing."

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When was the DPA enacted?

The DPA was created in 1950 during the Korean War. President Harry Truman used it to fix wages and prices as well as allocate goods in short supply.

Congress let some of the act's original powers expire in 1953 when the Korean War ended, but sections pertaining to private companies' contracts with the government and loan guarantees still stand.

How often is the DPA used?

The government uses the DPA for a variety of purposes, from ensuring that financially struggling Chrysler made M1 Abrams tanks in the 1970s to helping the Department of Defense fund new technologies.

Closeup detail of a hospital ventilator machine in an operating room.

Even though the act has "Defense" in its title, it's crafted to allow presidents to use it in case of natural disasters and other emergencies. During the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush used the act to send emergency power and natural gas to the state's utilities, according to the Congressional Research Service.

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Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act before. In 2017, he used it to authorize the Department of Defense to take action to "target critical technology item shortfalls" regarding aerospace, microelectronics, satellite and other tech.