WASHINGTON — In March, Congress, through the CARES Act, gave the Pentagon $1 billion to “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” Instead, most of the fund has been paid to defense contractors for projects unrelated to COVID-19, such as jet engine parts, space surveillance, body armor and dress uniforms, according to a report Tuesday.
The taxpayer money was allocated under the Defense Production Act, which allows President Donald Trump to order U.S. companies to manufacture products in the nation’s interest.
The Pentagon initially planned to spend the bulk of the funding on medical supplies, but a few weeks after the CARES ACT was passed, department lawyers determined it could be used for defense production, The Washington Post reported.
The House Appropriations Committee, however, says its expectation was the Defense Department would use the money on medical-grade masks and other personal protection gear, the newspaper said.
Today, as the U.S. coronavirus death toll hits 200,000, health officials believe there are still funding shortfalls in responding to the virus, including to address a severe shortage of N95 masks at hospitals and for states to distribute vaccines when they are ready, according to the report.
The virus-related funding was used to patch up long-standing perceived gaps in military supplies, but it came a a time when U.S. military spending was already at an all-time high, the Post noted.
Trump initially resisted invoking the Defense Protection Act but relented under pressure in April. Since then, he has boasted that he has “used the DPA more comprehensively than any president in history.”
Despite the House Appropriations Committee saying it did not agree with the expenditures, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told the Post that her office worked closely with Congress and federal agencies to meet the needs of both the medical and defense industries.
Pentagon officials said they have been transparent with lawmakers both parties and that that addressing supply-chain shortfalls that could hurt the U.S. military’s ability to compete with China was a top priority.
Some of the defense contractors who were given Pentagon money also collected bailout funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Post reported.
Congress is now debating whether to approve a second round of pandemic-related stimulus payments. The Pentagon and defense contractors are asking for $11 billion for their programs.