by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Thursday, May 19, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 173 days away. Election Day 2024 is 901 days away.
The primary goal of Wake Up To Politics is always to take you behind the scenes of the halls of power in Washington, D.C. and to explain in clear, understandable terms what they’re doing each day.
This morning, I want to apply that goal to a very important issue: the baby formula shortage. There’s been a flurry of action this week in order to address the crisis; I’ll break down for you what the White House, Congress, and the agencies are doing — and what kind of impact it might have.
Later, as always, I’ll give you a look at how exactly those same leaders are spending their time today, including an important meeting with NATO’s possible next members, an intriguing event with 2024 tea leaves, and congressional votes on Ukraine aid and price gouging.
Let’s dive in:
How Washington is responding to the baby formula shortage
As you’ve probably heard, the United States is experiencing a serious shortage of baby formula.
The problem is partly caused by the same pandemic-era supply chain problems that have impacted just about every other product — but there’s also a Washington tie-in to the other major cause.
Following a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation, Abbott Labs — one of the three major baby formula producers in the U.S. — recalled several brands of formula due to possible bacterial contamination at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan. Abbott also paused production at the plant completely.
One of the recalled brands, Similac, was the highest-selling baby formula brand in the country. In all, as of last week, 43% of baby formula was out of stock across the U.S. Industry insiders say the shortage could last through the summer, and possibly even for the rest of 2022.
With American parents scrambling to feed their children, Washington is beginning to mobilize to address the shortage, which the White House has called a “top priority” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has labeled “outrageous and unacceptable.”
Here’s what the major players in D.C. are doing in response to the baby formula crisis...
On Wednesday, President Biden announced that he had invoked his powers under the Defense Production Act — a Korean War-era law that has also been used throughout the pandemic — to compel suppliers of baby formula ingredients to prioritize the needs of baby formula manufacturers over any other customers.
It’s a step that members of Congress from both parties had been urging him to take, hoping it will increase the nationwide supply of formula.
At the same time, Biden also announced that he was greenlighting the use of Defense Department aircraft to pick up baby formula manufactured overseas (as long as it meets U.S. safety standards), in an effort to get formula to U.S. shelves faster. This new initiative has been dubbed “Operation Fly Formula.”
Meanwhile, the House voted on Wednesday to pass two pieces of legislation tied to the shortage. The first bill, the Access to Baby Formula Act, overwhelmingly passed with bipartisan support, in a 414-9 vote. The measure would allow more brands of formulas to be purchased through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
WIC is a governmental program for low-income families; about half of baby formula in the U.S. is purchased by people using WIC benefits. Until the recalls, Abbott products served 89% of infants participating in WIC, which is why this bill allows WIC recipients to purchase a wider range of brands.
The second measure passed by the House was a package to provide $28 million in funding to the FDA, allowing the agency to increase its inspection staff and add other personnel focused on formula issues, as well as to boost its efforts to get fraudulent baby formula off the shelves.
This bill received much less bipartisan support, passing 231-192, with only 12 Republicans in favor. Congressional Republicans said the bill doesn’t do enough and doesn’t constitute a plan to end the shortage; Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) called it a way for Democrats to look like they’re “doing something about the crisis without actually doing anything.”
Both measures will now go to the Senate, where the WIC bill is expected to pass but the FDA funding bill might not be able to clear the 60-vote bar set by the filibuster. Meanwhile, on the committee level, FDA commissioner Robert Califf will testify before the House Appropriations Committee on the shortage today.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is set to hold another hearing on May 25, with Califf as well as representatives from Abbott and other formula manufacturers.
Finally, what has the FDA been doing to address the formula shortage?
The agency announced on Monday that it had reached an agreement with Abbott to reopen its Michigan plant, as long as the company hires a qualified expert to oversee certain improvements to the facility.
Another issue that has exacerbated the shortage is the FDA’s strict safety guidelines, which precludes many baby formula brands manufactured abroad from being imported to the U.S.
However, the FDA also said Monday that it was relaxing its guidelines for 180 days, meaning it will temporarily “not object” to certain brands being imported to the U.S. — or to U.S.-manufactured products that are normally only sold abroad to being sold here too.
However, even with all of these Washington institutions focused on the crisis, it may be some time before it can be fixed.
It will take two weeks, for example, for Abbott’s critical Michigan plant to begin resuming operations. And then it will be another six to eight weeks after that before Abbott’s baby formula will return to the shelves.
In addition, Biden’s “Operation Fly Formula” will likely take a bit of time to get off the ground (literally).
But a White House official told the New York Times that the president is moving forward with the plan anyways. Biden, the official said, views it as worth it if he can “shave even a few days off the manufacture and distribution of formula.”
More news to know
World: Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, each breaking decades of neutrality and moving towards a step that could reshape European security. However, any NATO member has the power to object, and Turkey has already put up resistance.
- The leaders of Finland and Sweden will huddle with President Biden at the White House today.
- Meanwhile, the U.S. reopened its Ukrainian embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday.
Congress: In response to the recent shooting in Buffalo, the House passed the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act on Wednesday. The bill would expand the government’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism; it was approved 222-203, with the only GOP support coming from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
- On the Senate side: President Biden’s nominee to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was confirmed by unanimous consent. Bridget Brink, the new ambassador, is a career diplomat who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.
Biden administration: After three weeks of controversy and criticism from conservatives, the Department of Homeland Security has paused its “Disinformation Governance Board” and the board’s executive director has resigned.
- On Covid, Biden health officials warned Wednesday that cases and hospitalizations are rising in the U.S., even as a new poll showed 1 in 3 Americans say the pandemic is over.
What’s going on in Washington today
All times Eastern.
President Biden: Receives his daily intelligence briefing (8:30 am). Meets with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinistö of Finland to discuss their bids for NATO membership (9:15 am). Delivers brief remarks with Andersson and Niinistö (10:30 am).
- Then: Biden will travel to South Korea for his first trip to Asia as president. He’ll make a stop to refuel in Alaska on the way.Vice President Harris: Joins Biden for his meeting with Andersson and Niinistö, as well as for their remarks afterwards. Later, she’ll hold a virtual meeting with abortion providers (2:05 pm).
First Lady Biden (currently in Ecuador): Meets with the president of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, and his wife, María de Lourdes Alcívar de Lasso (10 am). Visits a child development center with Alcívar (11 am). Delivers remarks (2 pm). Visits a U.S.-supported school that helps Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, and Colombian teenagers who were previously out of school rejoin the formal school system (3:45 pm).
Second Gentleman Emhoff: Participates in an event with the New Hampshire Campaign For Legal Services (8:30 am).
- Reading the tea leaves: Presidents, vice presidents, and their spouses are pretty careful with their time and generally don’t attend many events — which is why it’s always worth noting which political figures and organizations they choose to give their time to. (In fact, that’s the whole idea behind this section of the newsletter.)
- That’s why this Emhoff event caught my eye: it’s a pretty low-profile organization for one of those four “principals” to be giving time to. Unless, of course, you consider that Emhoff’s wife may one day be a candidate for president (maybe even in 2024) and that New Hampshire (at least historically) plays a critical role in the presidential nominating process...
- Also: Votes on advancing S. 4088, a $48 billion aid package for restaurants impacted by the pandemic, and the nomination of Stephanie Davis, a Trump-appointed district judge who Biden has tapped to be a federal appeals judge in Michigan.
House: Votes on H.R. 7688, which would expand the Federal Trade Commission’s powers to investigate and possibly take legal action against oil and gas companies accused of price gouging.
- Preview: With some moderate Democrats on the fence — including members from oil-producing Texas — it is unclear if the bill will have enough votes to pass.
Supreme Court: Meets for its weekly conference.
What else: FDA Commissioner Robert Califf will testify before a House subcommittee on the baby formula shortage (10 am).
- Also on the Hill: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly press conference (10:30 am).
- At the agencies: The CDC’s vaccines advisory committee will discuss and vote on its recommendation for whether the agency should approve Pfizer’s application for Covid booster shots for 5- to 11-year-olds. The FDA gave their endorsement on Tuesday.
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