U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb has called for President Trump to use presidential war powers to produce more ventilators and other supplies needed to fight the coronavirus. But by Friday afternoon, it wasn't clear whether Trump would do so. Lamb said using the Defense Production Act could help drastically ramp up the creation of masks, ventilators, and other equipment needed to tackle the fast spreading coronavirus.
“The federal government uniquely can put the American people in the front of the line for all this stuff,” said the Democrat. “It is now a global competition for all of this material, and we need to get as much of it built and to our hospitals and to our first responders as quickly as possible, everywhere in the United States.”
Healthcare systems around the world have been strained to the breaking point by the coronavirus, as hopsitals face an influx of patients far beyond their capacity -- even as officials like Gov. Tom Wolf have shut down non-essential businesses, schools and other facilities that could escalate transmission.
Lamb there are already talks among Allegheny County officials about creating makeshift hospitals in the region.
“The need is absolutely here,” said Lamb. “I think when it comes to space, we've got a lot of good resources.”
But Lamb said there were other “basic, unanswered questions” about how other resources in the area, like ventilator manufacturer Philips Respironics, should proceed if Trump doesn't use the Defense Production Act. That law allows the government to require industries to ramp up needed equipment, but Trump has sent mixed signals about whether he would use it.
“With the right government response, we could have that warehouse churning around the clock,” said Lamb. “The conversations are happening at the local level, but I just can't emphasize to you enough that the role for leadership here lies with the federal government. This is something that threatens every inch of the United States and every person.”
Congress has already passed several financial relief packages to stem the economic fallout over the coronavirus, and Congressional leadership has signaled there will be more to come for small businesses that have been forced to close. But Lamb said he’s focusing on the situation at hand.
“I think the best thing we can do for the economy is the best thing we can do for our own health, which is maintain these social distancing measures,” said Lamb. “That's going to involve a lot of economic pain, we're already starting to see it. A lot of families got their worst news yesterday -- short of somebody dying – which is that someone in their household lost a job. We need money for people to get through the next month. That is our number-one priority. Every family needs to know that they're going to eat, that they're going to pay their mortgage or their rent.”
Lamb said once that’s taken care of, Congress can talk about assistance for other industries and cash flow for small businesses.
“I'm sure that that's coming. But the phase of true stimulus, that's really still down the road. Right now we're about survival.”
And amid the crisis, Lamb said he’s seen better spirit from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“You have Senate Republicans, for example, proposing things that Andrew Yang was proposing on the presidential campaign trail just a month or so ago: the idea of direct checks to every American. They're casting aside some of the partisan differences, and I think the challenge to us is to allow that to continue and not break down. Time is such a factor here. There isn't time to worry about who has the best idea between Democrats and Republicans. We basically need to be trying everything, and I think both sides are doing that from the proposals I've seen.”
Lamb said Trump’s tone has shifted in recent weeks as well, as he seems to take the threat of the pandemic more seriously. Lamb called that “a good thing," but added, “I just think on this issue of producing stuff, the stuff that all of our doctors and nurses and health care workers are going to need, they're still too slow on that and I don't understand why."
“The crisis is already here, it's not coming up, there's nothing more you need to see," he said. "Let's start producing this stuff in a big way and getting it out to the people that need it.”