The Prospects for a Real “China Bill”

COMMENTARY Asia

The Prospects for a Real “China Bill”

Aug 18th, 2021 4 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Walter Lohman

Director, Asian Studies Center

As Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman oversees the think tank’s oldest research center.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters while leaving the U.S. Capitol on Monday, August 9, 2021. Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills to address specific concerns regarding Chinese behavior on the international stage.

The first of the bills was initiated in February, the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), and passed the full Senate in June.

Barring such an approach, Congress will have to wait another couple of years to pass something real on China.

The U.S. Congress has become alive to the China challenge. Lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills to address specific concerns regarding Chinese behavior on the international stage.

They have also moved on two comprehensive proposals that address the problem-set in the broadest possible way.

It may be a new, third comprehensive proposal, however, that points to the future.

The first of the big bills was initiated in February, when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tasked a range of committees to come up with comprehensive legislation. The resulting bill—the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA)—passed the full Senate in June.

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The bill includes several critically important provisions supplied by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among them is language ensuring Taiwan receives the diplomatic respect it deserves, barring U.S. official involvement in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and a long-overdue rebalancing of U.S. diplomatic resources and assistance in favor of the Indo-Pacific.

Unfortunately, all the hard work on foreign policy may turn out to have been mere window dressing. The only bits Schumer cares about are the bill’s provisions to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for high-tech research and development and for the production of microprocessors.

There is a legitimate debate over the advisability of this sort of government assistance. Personally, I think it goes too far in empowering government’s role in the economy. Proponents of the subsidies, on the other hand, think the U.S. can no longer compete in high-tech without a greater government role.

But it’s not even clear that’s what the assistance is about.

For an idea of what is really at stake in USICA, see the press release Schumer’s office put out last year when introducing the Endless Frontier Act, the stand-alone bill at the heart of USICA. The statement is a compendium of more than two dozen endorsements from constituencies in New York State that stand to benefit from the bill’s passage. There is no doubt that, if Schumer can get only the tech subsidies on the president’s desk, he’ll take it and let all the real foreign policy provisions fall to the wayside.

The second comprehensive effort on China was a House product. For several days at the end of June and early July, the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked-up the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act.

The EAGLE Act is heavy on reporting requirements and toothless expressions of congressional concern. But the bill could be improved and strengthened in negotiations with the Senate. In fact, the House already made some improvements of its own during mark-up.

The bigger problem is that the House bill also overreaches. It contains all kinds of measures that have nothing to do with the China challenge. Most striking are the billions of dollars directed at climate change.

Why? Again, constituent interest. Unless the Democratic leadership in the House can stand up to its progressive wing and jettison those provisions in negotiations with the Senate, the EAGLE Act will go no further.

That being the case, it’s only fair to assume that for the majority in the House, it’s the thought that counts. They don’t care about passing a bill. They’re just sending political signals.

Then, there is a third comprehensive effort. A bill from the Republican Study Committee (RSC) substantively addresses many of the most important issues in the China debate. It’s not perfect. For instance, there is an unworkable provision requiring the president to seek reimbursement from China for losses due to COVID-19. Good sentiment. Not gonna happen.

The RSC bill also reauthorizes Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). Again, the sentiment is right. The U.S. desperately needs to recommit to free trade. But TPA requires considerable reform before it’s extended. Congress needs to have a separate, in-depth debate focused just on this.

Whatever its limitations, though, the study committee’s Countering Communist China Act is clearly about China. Among other good things, it targets the influence operations of China’s United Front Work Department and erects guardrails around the funds the USICA is looking to give away. The USICA subsidies are the wrong way to make American businesses competitive with Chinese firms, but if they become law, we ought to at least make sure we’re not indirectly subsidizing American business operations in China itself.

The greatest feature of the RSC bill, however, is its recognition that countering China isn’t about how much money the U.S. can spend; it’s about policy.

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The clock is running out on meaningful congressional action this year. But it’s not yet impossible to pass a solid, comprehensive bill addressing the China challenge. For that to happen, lawmakers will have to look beyond narrow constituent interests. They will also have to start taking their own constitutional powers more seriously.

There is a process for producing responsive, responsible legislative outcomes. It’s called the “regular order.” This means marking up legislation in committee.

And then—here’s the most important part—allowing members to vote on amendments for which the outcome is not preordained. That’s the only way proposals like the RSC’s have a chance to be considered. The rough edges can then be worked out in negotiations between the two Houses.

Barring such an approach, Congress will have to wait another couple of years to pass something real on China. Given current polling data, the RSC package could very well be the starting point for the new debate. That would be a positive thing.

This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times