If Congress is serious about China, it should legislate accordingly

There already exists broad bipartisan consensus for improving U.S. economic competitiveness

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has directed the relevant committee chairs to draft legislation to address the China challenge. Lawmakers should not miss this opportunity to pass a comprehensive China bill through regular order, Lohman writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has directed the relevant committee chairs to draft legislation to address the China challenge. Lawmakers should not miss this opportunity to pass a comprehensive China bill through regular order, Lohman writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 19, 2021 at 6:00am

Virtually everyone on Capitol Hill agrees: China is the defining foreign policy challenge of the 21st century.

Congress should act accordingly, by passing a truly comprehensive China bill. And it should do so under regular order, taking the time to get it right and, thereby demonstrating faith in its own institutions.  

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer directed the relevant committee chairs to draft legislation to address the China challenge. His interests are technology-related, like the issues addressed in a bill he introduced last Congress with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind. The Endless Frontiers Act, they say, will “catalyze U.S. innovation by boosting investments in the discovery, creation, and commercialization of new technologies that ensure American leadership in the industries of the future.”

Schumer, Young and many others on both sides of the aisle are searching for ways to help the U.S. keep its edge on China in areas like semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It is a worthy goal. However, while Endless Frontiers was carefully calibrated to focus on the early stages of discovery and innovation (as opposed to subsidies for big companies eager to bring new applications to market), what emerges from Schumer’s order to the committees may not be as modest.   

By and large, government spending is not the right approach to improve economic competitiveness. The U.S. government is not going to outspend China. Washington would do far better to let the private sector provide the capital, while lawmakers focus on keeping taxes low and establishing efficient regulatory certainty.

That said, there is a role for government-funded R&D. That’s why we need a debate, to determine, as a nation, what that contribution should be.

When the Senate chairs send in their homework, Schumer should put a bill on the floor and open it to amendment. If senators don’t like Endless Frontier’s $100 billion-plus price tag, they can adjust it or strip it out entirely. They can do the same with other spending recommendations that emerge from committees. And while they’re at it, they can propose improvements in the tax and regulatory environment.

The House should follow a similar process. It’s been four years since House members were allowed to offer floor amendments not pre-blessed by leadership. This would be the perfect issue set to turn that around.  

What are congressional leaders afraid of? A Senate filibuster? That seems unlikely on an issue with such broad bipartisan consensus.

Embarrassing the president? There is a way to control for that. When the committees of jurisdiction mark up the bill, the administration should make any concerns known. Work with them to get the language the administration wants.

Miss that opportunity? Try again with an ally on the Senate floor. That’s why the vice president has an office there.

Still not satisfied? Work the House side and the conference committee. Finally, of course, if there is something in the bill bad enough in the president’s estimation to ruin the rest of it, there’s always the veto.

Of course, all this takes time, and floor time is always at a premium — especially in the Senate. So spend a week debating it. After all, if done right, this bill will set policy for the next decade or two.

This brings up another issue: scope. American economic competitiveness is just one part of the China challenge. Last Congress, then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, introduced the STRATEGIC Act, and now-Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the LEADS Act. Both were comprehensive approaches to China. The LEADS Act, in fact, incorporated the Schumer-Young bill. 

In addition to issues related to supply chains and American high-tech competiveness, together these bills addressed: the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in American educational institutions and the United Nations system; several “value” issues like the situations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, and the security of American allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific; and economic concerns such as technology standard, the coercion of intellectual property rights, Chinese state industrial subsidies, and the economic distortions caused by state-owned Chinese companies. 

A combination of these two mega-bills is the kind of legislation Congress should debate.

The last thing the Senate should want is a collection of deals made with individual senators that is then attached to what becomes a massive spending bill, clearly more about industrial policy and pork-barrel spending than geopolitics.

A monstrosity like that may pass. Or maybe not; it will need 60 votes in the Senate. Either way, it is not a serious way to approach the single most important set of global issues facing the United States.

This is serious business. Congress should act like it.

Walter Lohman is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.