President Donald Trump declared a state of National Emergency on March 13, 2020, to loosen restrictive federal regulations hampering government response to the COVID-19 crisis. While no one can predict how widespread, intense, and debilitating the pandemic will be, a little-known program can provide additional resources: the National Defense Executive Reserve (NDER).
The program is not new. President Harry Truman proposed in the Defense Production Act (DPA) of 1950 that the NDER would be “a pool of individuals with recognized expertise from various segments of the private sector and from government (except full-time federal employees).” It would include experienced executives, who, with little training, could step into executive government positions.
Truman sponsored the DPA legislation after World War II, when much of the nation’s defense industry had demobilized. With the “return of peace,” Congress had cut back spending on defense significantly, and manufacturing priorities were returning to domestic commercial production. To ensure that defense industry executive and management skills were not lost, the NDER preserved a “volunteer reserve of private sector executives who would be available for emergency federal employment.” Since 1950, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the DPA has been reauthorized 50 times, most recently by the Trump and Obama administrations.
In March, Trump invoked the DPA so that he could order manufacturers to produce essential equipment and supplies necessary in the Coronavirus fight. The DPA gives the president broad powers to direct the defense industrial base and to activate the NDER. While the NDER was conceived to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States, it could, in a catastrophic event that might involve a pandemic, be used to support existing DoD personnel. The executives in this program provide expertise and experience as senior-level advisers in management positions who do not require the advice and consent of the Senate.
Empowering the NDER is a matter of national security readiness. Currently, the secretary of Homeland Security manages the NDER through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and is the Cabinet member who can activate the program. The NDER envisions a corps of retired chief executive officers, chief financial officers, senior vice presidents, and former executive-level government employees who are vetted and on call and ready to serve the government in times of need. The hope is that the NDER can be populated quickly with civilian leaders of wide-ranging skills and high-level expertise that can help U.S. government navigate successfully through dangerous situations.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
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