The national shortage of baby formula has become the latest partisan issue to ripple through the nation’s capital, prompting a flurry of actions by the administration and Democrats, and charges of ‘too little, too late’ from Republicans.
“Our nation's baby formula shortage is completely outrageous,” tweeted Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK3) Thursday. “For the last 3 months, families have fallen into the grips of an unacceptable infant formula supply crisis…For the health and safety of children across Oklahoma, the Biden Admin. must address this situation immediately.”
The House passed two measures Wednesday intended to help correct the problem, the same day the White House announced two executive orders aimed at speeding up the restocking of store shelves.
President Biden invoked the National Defense Production Act to help ensure that manufacturers in the U.S. have the necessary ingredients to make safe, healthy infant formula. He also announced the launch of ‘Operation Fly Formula’, directing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to use Department of Defense (DOD) commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards, so it can get to store shelves faster.”
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in the House pushed a measure to provide $28 million in supplemental funding to the FDA; it passed along party lines, with Republicans strongly objecting,
"It’s just throwing money at the problem," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK4) in an interview Thursday, "and the reason was, they’re all going home on break and they all need something to point to that they did."
Rep. Cole says the bill included no timeline for FDA's use of the money and no requirement that the agency produce a plan as to how it would be spent.
"And this is the agency that, honestly, was responsible for letting us know that there was a problem and for ringing the alarm bill," said Cole, "so, why are you going to reward people that have actually done a poor job?"
The other bill, The Access to Baby Formula Act of 2022, had strong bipartisan support. Cole explained his yes vote, saying the bill “would ensure American families do not experience similar shortages in the future by requiring manufacturers to develop plans to prevent shortages in the event production is disrupted and providing temporary, narrow flexibilities to states’ Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs to allow continued access to formula during supply disruptions.”
The problem of empty shelves, Cole and other Republicans say, was avoidable, given the fact that the FDA was aware of problems at Abbott, the nation's largest formula manufacturer, months ago.
The administration's actions are being generally welcomed by the Oklahoma delegation, but also criticized for not coming soon enough.
"This isn’t an issue that happened overnight," said Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK5) in an interview Thursday, "this goes back months."
Rep. Bice has now co-sponsored two bills in response to formula shortage -- last week teaming up with Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-IA) on legislation to remove barriers to importing formula from overseas and this week join Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and others on legislation to give Congress greater oversight of the FDA.
"Had we had better, I think, perspective on what was happening, how long the plant was going to be down, what the impact to the supply chain could have been," Rep. Bice stated, "we could have mitigated some of the effects of what we’re seeing in grocery shelves right now, which are completely sold out of formula."