Congressional Officials Handed Out Made in China KN95 Masks. There’s Bipartisan Outrage.

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Jan 20 2022 |
“It is unacceptable that the federal legislative branch – using taxpayer dollars – has chosen to purchase potentially inferior masks from China when we have domestic manufacturers eager to deliver high-quality masks,” Democratic senators write. Getty Images

Democratic Senators write future purchases must “prioritize products made in the U.S.” More than 120 Republicans, meanwhile, say there’s “no reason that our elected officials and government workers should be given KN95 masks manufactured in China.”

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of outrage on Capitol Hill these days. But it’s rare that Members of Congress across party lines agree about it.

And this is one instance when their outrage is justified.

Earlier this month, Congressional officials began handing out face masks to congressional offices as part of an effort to curb surging COVID-19 rates. All individuals on the House side of the Capitol complex must now wear N95 style face masks, which provide more protection than other types of masks.

The problem? The masks those officials handed out were KN95 masks that were manufactured in China.

Now, this is the point in the story in which we remind everyone that there are many American manufacturers who are capable of making N95 masks that meet all health and safety standards. It’s also where we remind you that despite their hard work to get up-and-running at the start of the pandemic — when PPE was nowhere to be found because China had stopped exporting it — America’s mask makers are now struggling to stay afloat because of surging imports from China (which are priced below fair market value, heavily subsidized by China’s government, and often ineffective or fraudulent.).

Those dark, early days were supposed to teach everyone a lesson about the dangers of relying on a potential adversary for our critical needs. And yet, less than two years later, Congressional officials spent taxpayer money to give Members of Congress KN95 masks that were Made in China.

But there is some good news, which is that Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are pretty fired up about it!

On Wednesday, a group of Democratic Senators wrote to the Architect of the Capitol and Secretary of the Senate to “share our frustration with the decision to provide members of the U.S. House of Representatives with KN95 masks made in China.”

“Despite the urgent need for high-quality, American made products, too many U.S.-based PPE manufacturers are struggling to exist as health systems and other major purchasers of PPE choose to purchase cheaper, lower-quality masks and other supplies from China,” they write, noting that 6,000 of the 8,000 jobs created by U.S. mask manufacturers created in the wake of the pandemic have disappeared. They continue:

“Regrettably, a key reason this part of the industry was offshored pre-COVID was because price was the predominant factor in purchasing. It is unacceptable that the federal legislative branch – using taxpayer dollars – has chosen to purchase potentially inferior masks from China when we have domestic manufacturers eager to deliver high-quality masks. We must not compromise the health of Americans by making purchases based mainly on lowest cost.”

Senators signing the letter include Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

But they weren’t the only Members angered by the Made in China masks. More than 120 House Republicans also expressed their disbelief, writing to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that there “is no reason that our elected officials and government workers should be given KN95 masks manufactured in China.”

The Republicans pointed out that Members of Congress have made clear their desire for Made in America PPE, noting that the National Defense Authorization Act prohibited the Defense Department from buying PPE from China and “other non-allied nations.”

“Given these facts, why would the Attending Physician, Architect of the Capitol, and Chief Administrative Officer—each under your direction—choose to give members and staff KN95 masks when these masks are neither manufactured in the United States nor constructed to meet American standards?” the Republicans wrote to Pelosi, according to a Fox News report.

There’s no question that like many manufacturers, American mask makers face an uphill battle. China’s government used unfair tactics to control the global PPE market, and is aiming to maintain that control. It’s tough for American manufacturers to beat these unfair imports, which are priced as cheap as a penny a mask — a completely unrealistic price for companies operating in a free market system and abiding by much stronger labor and environmental standards.

But now we know the real world consequences of not having this critical production. Remember when medical personnel were left on the frontlines without proper supplies? Remember when there weren’t face masks to keep the public safe — and we couldn’t make them quick enough? Everyone vowed never to let that happen again.

All of this is why taxpayer money spent on PPE like N95 masks should always be reinvested right back into American workers and manufacturers. This will ensure that these companies can maintain production and quickly ramp things up in a crisis.

There’s going to be another major opportunity for the government to buy American-made N95s soon, by the way. President Biden announced this week that free N95 masks will be released from the Strategic National Stockpile and given the American public in another effort to curb surging COVID-19 rates.

That means that the government is going to have to restock the stockpile — and many of the same Democratic Senators who wrote to Congressional officials want to make sure the stockpile is filled with Made in America N95s. They wrote to President Biden to urge him to “take clear steps that prioritize long-term contracts for the purchase of masks made by American workers in the U.S. with U.S. materials.”

“Doing so not only helps to prevent further loss of life, keep our kids in school, and ensure our economy remains open, but it will also ensure that the United States maintains a robust PPE manufacturing capacity so that we are never again in a situation where we must be dependent on foreign-made products, like we were in the early days of the pandemic,” they write. “It also supports a healthy, stable supply chain for higher quality products, which offer superior protection against the transmission of COVID-19.”

The Biden administration must prioritize the purchase of Made in America N95s; Congressional officials should do the same thing the next time they need to place a PPE order.

In the meantime, you can help support American mask makers by purchasing Made in USA N95 masks the next time you need to stock up.