As crippling shortages of baby formula became a crisis that bubbled up from the streets onto cable news sets and, eventually, into the halls of power, we’ve been treated to a spectacle of mismanagement and abuse typical of the modern political class.
Last week, as public concern over the months’ long formula shortage began to preoccupy the minds of the influencers to whom the White House pays close attention, President Joe Biden deigned to address the matter. He pledged to do what he could to ease the supply strain, loosening restrictions on imports and increasing domestic manufacturing capacity. “Should you have taken those steps sooner before parents got to these shelves and couldn’t find formula?” one reporter asked. Biden sneered. “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have,” he replied.
As is his habit, Biden’s trademark empathy evaporated when confronted by the consequences of his own failures. The president didn’t need to read anyone’s mind to become aware of the worsening conditions on America’s drugstore shelves. The crisis was visible to observers as early as last November, and it was the subject of investigative journalism in obscure venues such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in January. That was before an FDA “warning” all but shuttered production at Abbott Labs, one of the few domestic formula producers, over a legitimate public health concern. It was, however, obvious at the time that this matter demanded a quick resolution or the crisis would deepen.
Suddenly, after months of stasis, the Biden administration engineered that resolution almost overnight. Within hours of the president’s news conference, the FDA managed to negotiate an agreement to reopen that production facility. The speed with which this occurred highlighted not the efficiency of the nation’s regulatory apparatus but the scale of the political crisis descending on the White House.
However welcome, the reopening of this one facility would not resolve the supply crunch in a timely enough fashion for America’s parents. It was then that an idea, which had been gaining traction both on the activist left and the populist right, got a second look from the White House. A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the president to invoke the Defense Production Act, rousing by fiat America’s industrial might to the cause.
The White House had previously been coy about the value of the DPA in this case. The president’s communications officials noted that it wasn’t clear what the act could do to relieve the strain on consumers, and Democratic leadership in the House correctly observed that it would be a misuse of the specifically delineated legal emergency powers the law grants the executive branch. But the political pressure had grown too great, so the White House relented.
Thus, Biden invoked the DPA for the third time in his young presidency. And yet again, he did so for a cause, however urgent, that had nothing to do with “defense.” Indeed, the maneuver has little to do with “production” either. Per the White House, the DPA in this case will allow the administration to mandate that suppliers of key formula ingredients must prioritize their distribution to baby food producers over other customers. The priority of the moment was to do something. The something’s efficacy was beside the point.
The real meat of the president’s executive actions did involve defense, though in a manner unrelated to the DPA. The administration announced the commencement of “Operation Fly Formula,” which will commit commercial aircraft with Pentagon contracts to fly to Europe to import the formula that was previously subject to import barriers—but only the “overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards.”
You see, the U.S. previously imposed non-tariff import barriers on foreign infant formula producers that restricted manufacturers abroad from selling products that didn’t meet FDA labeling and nutritional standards. But the scale of the political crisis—not a nutritional or labeling crisis—was such that the FDA revised these crucial regulatory measures last week, the culmination of work that began in February following the recall of Abbott Labs’ products.
European baby formula didn’t become less hazardous, in the FDA’s estimation, instantaneously. The formula bottleneck of production in the U.S., which has long served to protect America’s dairy industry from foreign competition, didn’t become unsustainable due to commercial pressures. Americans benefiting from federal assistance may no longer have to navigate their specific state’s labyrinthine manufacturing contracts just to change formula brands, but that happy outcome is not because Congress encountered a rare bout of sanity.
The urgency of America’s needs became too great to preserve the unnecessary regulations that imposed artificial limits on U.S. supply. But consumers had experienced and resented those limits for months. They became intolerable when, as the Washington Post conceded, the formula shortage “turned political.”
This combination of executive lethargy, regulatory overreach, and the wild misapplication of emergency presidential powers, not in response to the public’s acute need but the political class’s dire professional fortunes, is sadly typical of how Washington conducts itself these days. We might have been spared this farcical scene if competence or principle were virtues American voters still rewarded. Alas, that’s not how this works anymore.