Sep4ember 23, 2020
The Defense Department has allowed the Pentagon to play a shell game with $1 billion in federal funds intended to pay for pandemic-related PPE and equipment such as respirators, medical gloves and gowns, swabs and test kits, and ventilators.
Congress allotted the financing to the Pentagon, even as the coronavirus pandemic spiked last March, in order to build up the nation’s stockpile of medical equipment. Instead, the Washington Post reports, the money has been funneled mostly to defense contractors for the manufacture of such items as jet engine parts, body armor, and dress uniforms.
The change illustrates how one taxpayer-backed effort to battle the novel coronavirus, which has killed about 200,000 Americans to date, was instead diverted toward patching up long-standing perceived gaps in military supplies.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Congress passed earlier this year, gave the Pentagon money to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” But a few weeks later, the Defense Department began reshaping how it would award the money in a way that represented a major departure from Congress’s intent.
Among the awards: $183 million to firms including Rolls-Royce and ArcelorMittal to maintain the shipbuilding industry; tens of millions of dollars for satellite, drone and space surveillance technology; $80 million to a Kansas aircraft parts business suffering from the Boeing 737 Max grounding and the global slowdown in air travel; and $2 million for a domestic manufacturer of Army dress uniform fabric.
The payments were made even though U.S. health officials believe that major funding gaps in pandemic response still remain. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in Senate testimony last week that states desperately need $6 billion to distribute vaccines to Americans early next year. Many U.S. hospitals still face a severe shortage of N95 masks. These are the types of problems that the money was originally intended to address.
“This is part and parcel of whether we have budget priorities that actually serve our public safety or whether we have a government that is captured by special interests,” said Mandy Smithberger, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
The $1 billion fund is just a fraction of the $3 trillion in emergency spending that Congress approved earlier this year to deal with the pandemic. But it shows how the blizzard of bailout cash was — in some cases — redirected to firms that weren’t originally targeted for assistance. It also shows how difficult it has been for officials to track how money is spent and — in the case of Congress — intervene when changes are made.
What’s more, according to the Post’s report, the Trump Administration has done little to limit the defense firms from accessing multiple bailout funds at once—and is not requiring the companies to refrain from layoffs as a condition of receiving the awards.
Congress, at President Trump’s urging, is debating whether to pass another massive stimulus package, and the Pentagon and defense contractors have called for an additional $11 billion to be directed toward their programs.
Research contact: @washingtonpost