Crawford plays legislative whack-a-mole with China-made buses, railcars

The Arkansas Republican tenaciously opposes U.S. transit systems buying vehicles from Chinese manufacturers

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., during a 2015 joint hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., during a 2015 joint hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2020 at 6:00am

Hours into the second day of an agonizingly lengthy markup of the House surface transportation bill, Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., popped up on the Cisco WebEx livestream and began introducing a series of amendments with a singular purpose: Keeping China out of U.S. transit systems.  

For close to 15 minutes, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials introduced amendments that quickly advanced by voice vote

“You’ve had a pretty good run,” observed Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass.

A few weeks later, Crawford was back at it, submitting an amendment to a transportation spending bill on China again, albeit with less success.

Crawford, 54, is an Army veteran whose even-keeled demeanor belies his prior career as a news anchor and, briefly, a country music singer. (His first and only album, “Crackin’ Out," is framed and displayed on the wall in his Rayburn office; he still plays guitar in a band called Triple Nickel.)

And he is tenacious: This year Crawford has been playing the legislative equivalent of whack-a-mole. If there’s a route Chinese companies can take to enter the U.S. transportation market with buses or railcars, odds are Crawford will be either introducing or cosponsoring legislation to block them.

“Because of his military background, because of his ranking membership of the rails subcommittee, because Arkansas is a big state for rail manufacturing, he just sort of hits all the different buckets, and has an instant grasp of the issue,” said Erik Olson, vice president of the Rail Security Alliance, which lobbies to keep Chinese-owned and subsidized companies out of U.S. transit. 

He is far from the only lawmaker involved in the issue, but at least in recent months, he’s been one of the most vocal, joining a bipartisan group that includes House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., Conor Lamb, D-Pa., Harley Rouda, D-Calif., and Scott Perry, R-Pa. In the Senate, the group includes Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and, from the Senate Banking Committee, ranking member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho.

The China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, known as CRRC, has won contracts to produce subway cars and commuter train cars in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles since 2014, leading groups like the Rail Security Alliance to fear that the company’s next step will be to try to enter the freight rail market. 

CRRC did not respond to at least five emails and a phone message requesting comment. 

Subsidies

An electric bus manufacturer, Build Your Dreams, or BYD, meanwhile, has delivered buses in the United States since 2014 to cities such as Indianapolis, Columbia, Mo., and Wenatchee, Wash. BYD is privately held, but critics say the company benefits heavily from significant Chinese subsidies.

Frank Girardot, a spokesman for BYD, said the company is publicly traded, employs 750 American workers and a large part of its stock is owned by American multinational conglomerate holding company Berkshire Hathaway. He said the company, which has U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, is involved in “everything from food banks to homeless shelters to local churches.” 

“If anything, there’s some confusion about BYD because it gets wrapped up into these bills that are targeting companies owned by China,” he said. “We are not owned by China. We welcome any member of Congress to come visit our factories and they can see for themselves.”

To the companies’ critics, the issue is one of national security and U.S. economic survival. They argue that U.S. tax dollars should go to U.S. companies — not competitors supported by the Chinese government. 

“Our tax dollars should not be given to firms like CRRC masquerading as American companies when they are backed by Beijing and the Chinese military,” said Scott Boos, senior vice president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. Boos said Crawford “recognizes that China is using predatory, state-driven tactics in its pursuit of dominating entire industrial sectors.”

Crawford appearing via WebEx at a June hearing. (House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee)

Crawford was among the lawmakers who worked to include in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act a provision that barred federal public transit dollars from going toward bus and rail rolling stock from an entity incorporated in or with manufacturing facilities in the U.S. that is “owned or controlled by, is a subsidiary of or is otherwise related legally or financially to a corporation based in China."

The provision takes effect two years after the enactment of the 2019 law.

[NDAA provision targets Chinese rail cars and electric buses]

But those concerned about the issue say they worry that enough loopholes exist in that law and “Buy America” provisions to allow China to maintain a foothold in the market. Crawford’s amendments aim to fight those loopholes. 

At a May 16, 2019, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, he displayed a CRRC tweet — later deleted — in which the company bragged it controls 83 percent of the global rail market and asked, “How long will it take for us conquering the remaining 17 percent?”

At that hearing, Crawford asked Phillip A. Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority if the authority knew when it bought CRRC rail cars that “it was an SOB, excuse me, SOE (state-owned enterprise) hell-bent on ‘conquering the global rail market?' ” 

“I can’t say I personally did,” Washington replied.

Cybersecurity

Another worry for Crawford and his allies: Cyber-hacking. By allowing CRRC to install Wi-Fi and computer software in transit cars, Crawford said, the U.S. may make itself more susceptible to cyberattacks. 

“It’s kind of insidious, and yet it’s right there, clearly in front of us,” he said.

During the debate over the surface transportation bill, he introduced six amendments, all approved by voice vote. 

Those amendments covered the gamut: One eliminated the two-year delay in enactment of the NDAA’s rolling stock provision and prevented the Federal Transit Administration from allowing Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles to continue doing business with CRRC beyond then.

Another closed a loophole in the FTA's “Buy America” rules that allowed transit authorities to buy from prohibited countries materials or supplies that are components of U.S. products.

A third closed an FTA loophole that allowed entire electrical, exhaust or other systems to be considered American-made even though they are made with materials and subcomponents made overseas. 

Crawford also introduced a successful motion to recommit on the House floor that added an amendment to the bill barring the use of funds it authorized to go to a company based in countries such as China that met a list of criteria including failure to comply with certain World Trade Organization requirements.

That motion passed 224-193, peeling off a large number of Democrats who, Crawford said, “don’t want to go home and explain to constituents why they’re on the wrong side of this issue.” The motion in part targeted China because of human rights violations related to the Uighur Muslims. 

While the overall House bill has little chance of passing the Senate, Olson said the amendments demonstrate the issue is still a priority for Congress. When Congress does act on a highway bill — the current law (PL 114-94) expires Sept. 30 — he said he is confident they’ll use Crawford’s language. 

For his part, Crawford vows to keep introducing amendments, to keep playing whack-a-mole for as long as it takes. He’ll get at least two more years; he is unopposed in November.

“This is not a messaging act,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to prevent this from happening.”

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