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Transcript: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on "Face the Nation," May 15, 2022

Buttigieg: U.S. working to end baby formula shortage
Buttigieg says Biden administration working to end baby formula shortage 09:15

The following is a transcript of an interview with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that aired Sunday, May 15, 2022, on "Face the Nation."

MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg joins us now. Good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Good to be with you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: As a representative of the administration, I do want to ask you a little bit about this reaction to the events in Buffalo. You were once a mayor. Do you think that there should be a federal law criminalizing domestic terrorism? The president used that phrase, but that's not really on the books.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: I'll let the President speak to the legal outlook with regard to the definition of terrorism. But whether it's called that legally or not, this was terrorism, this was hate, and this would be a good day for every politician in this country left, right and center, every media figure in this country, left, right and center to come out and unequivocally condemn white nationalism, so-called replacement theory, and any other hateful ideology that could have contributed to something like this before it happens again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But should there be a federal statute that elevates things when those terms you just threw out there? Should there be an association directly with terrorism?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Again, we don't know, obviously, all of the details that fit the legal definitions. What we know is that somebody traveled a long distance with an AR-15 to hunt human beings, to hunt Black people. And we need to make sure that we root out that kind of hate. And by the way, that we have a conversation about the availability of the kind of tactical weaponry that he seems to have had. And yet we seem to be having that conversation over and over and over again as a country.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you a little bit on a personal note. We've been talking about this baby formula shortage nationwide that's been ongoing now for months. You have infants at home. Do you have problems getting a hold of formula?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, this is very personal for us. We've got two nine month old children, baby formula is a very big part of our lives. And like millions of Americans, we've been rooting around stores, checking online, getting in touch with relatives in other places where they don't have the same shortages to see what they can send over. And we figured it out. We're all set, at least for now. But I think about what that would be like,if you're a shift worker with two jobs, maybe you don't have a car, you literally don't have the time or the money to be going from store to store. That's why this is such a serious issue and that's why it's getting attention at the highest levels, including, of course, direct involvement by the president.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, and this is going to be an issue Congress takes up this week. I know the President said more action is coming, but this has been ongoing for months. There are supply chain issues already. Then you have the issue with this one plant, Abbott, whistleblower in September, February the recall. It's May. Why has it taken so long and why did the president on Friday seem to say that it was new information to him? He said, if we'd been better mind readers, I guess we could have done something earlier.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well, look, the administration acted from day one after the recall. Taking steps like creating more flexibility for the WIC program to help rebalance the availability of formula in the States. There are more actions that are underway, including looking at imports. But fundamentally, we are here because a company was not able to guarantee that its plant was safe. And that plant has shut down.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But that is the federal government's job as regulators to help ensure safety of the plant- 

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: As regulators, yes. But let's be very clear. This is a capitalist country. The government does not make baby formula, nor should it. Companies make formula. And one of those companies, a company which, by the way, seems to have 40% market share, messed up and is unable to confirm that a plant, a major plant, is safe and free of contamination. So the most important thing to do right now, of course, is to get that plant in Michigan up and running safely. And that's the work that's going on between the company and the FDA. It's got to be safe and it's got to be up and running as soon as possible. But this is the difference between a supply chain problem, in other words, a problem about moving goods around, and a supply problem which has to do with whether they're being produced in the first place. Now, the administration's also been working with other companies to try to surge their production. That's led to an increase in production, which is helping to compensate. But at the end of the day, this plant needs to come back online safely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we'll have more on that later in the show. But because I know you're not the FDA commissioner, let me talk to you about the things you are involved more in, which is supply chain and spectrum procurement. How is the administration making sure that those essential ingredients that are actually required for something like formula are actually available?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: So a shortage of ingredients is not what led to the shutdown of the facility–

MARGARET BRENNAN: No, it is a factor that has led to price. Inflation is one of the factors among many that has been blamed for months of problems with baby formula even before the recall in February.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right, but America has the productive capacity to create the baby formula that we need. I think what– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're bringing it in from Europe right now. 

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right. But that's because. Again, we've got four companies making about 90% of the formula in this country which we should probably take a look at-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that an oligopoly? 

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I mean, it's-it's basically a series of monopolies that have added up into enormous market concentration. By the way, this is an issue the president has been talking about in area after area after area, whether we're talking about fertilizer, whether we're talking about other things in our agriculture sector–

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are contracts there too, because this is also part of- I'm using the term food stamp program-


MARGARET BRENNAN: But it's a part of a government assistance program.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Which is exactly why, again, from day one after the recall-.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This isn't just a private sector problem is my point. The federal government is directly involved in some of these arrangements.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: A plant shutting down because a company can't assure that it is physically safe from contamination is the responsibility of the company. The responsibility of the regulator is to ensure, as they take steps to get it ready, that it will in fact be safe when it comes back online.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I have so much more to get to as well. I want to get you on inflation. Gas prices- highest ever price in the country, $445 a gallon national average. Are you asking Americans to drive less?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: No. What we're asking Americans to do is to obviously recognize that we're working this issue because we're feeling it, too. I mean, all of us see that pain at the pump-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Should Americans drive less?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Look, what we want to do is create options for Americans to be able to get where they're going more affordably. It's why we up the fuel economy standards, so that by the 2026 model year, the cars will be so much more efficient. If you have a gas car that you- if you used to have to fill up four times a month, it might be three now. Of course, we're also working to make electric vehicles more affordable because that has a huge benefit, especially in terms of protecting families from these kinds of price volatility–.

MARGARET BRENNAN:  Those battery components are also a supply chain issue.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right. So are we going to take that as an excuse to do nothing and do the same thing forever? Or are we going to take that as an issue to work? We're taking it as an issue to work on. But right now with existing technology, we know that we can get more Americans into these vehicles. And we also know, right, that with gas prices on the rise and the president's acted with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, he's acted with ethanol flexibility to try to stabilize those prices. But we also know right now that we could be lowering other costs for Americans. And this is the most important thing I think we need to take a hard look at right now when we're fighting inflation with everything that we've got, that we made the case to lower the cost of insulin to $35 and faced basically unified Republican opposition, tried to lower the cost of prescription drugs and were blocked from doing so by congressional Republicans who then come around and want to talk about inflation without offering a plan.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But the public is isn't interested in things that didn't work right or didn't pass or aren't law. They want to know what's going on right now at their kitchen table and in their pocketbooks-

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Well I think they want to know what Congress is going to do to lower their costs. And we're making the case for that to happen–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Let's talk about that because I want- I want to ask you about what the administration thinks in regard to what some congressional Democrats like Senator Warren, Speaker Pelosi also says she's putting forward a bill about price gouging by companies and banning unconsciously excessive pricing. This has been called dangerous and misguided nonsense by the Obama administration economic adviser Jason Furman. Do you agree that it is nonsense?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: I'm not familiar with all of the details of that legislation. But what I can tell you from an administration perspective is that there is guidance going out to crack down on price gouging where we see it. If price gouging arises in the formula market or the fuel market-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that what- how much of a factor is that though?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Look, one thing that we know is that we're in this moment, right, where we're seeing that Americans are feeling the pinch on product after product. And some companies have become ridiculously profitable, notably including oil companies, which have specifically said they're not going to use the permits and the production capacity that they have. Why would they? They're incredibly profitable right now. They're not complaining. They're not unhappy about the situation. The public is unhappy. The president is unhappy and we're taking action.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We're going to leave it there. Secretary Buttigieg, good to have you here in person and good luck with the baby formula, Face the Nation. We'll be right back.

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