WASHINGTON - With President Joe Biden's broader domestic agenda stymied in the Senate, Democratic leaders in Congress have begun looking for legislative victories elsewhere, with a new focus on improving the U.S. ability to compete with China.
Democrats in the House of Representatives are attempting to come to agreement on legislation that would provide large financial subsidies to the semiconductor industry as well as generous research and development grants to support supply chain resilience, buoy domestic manufacturing operations and underwrite new scientific research.
The effort in the House follows a push in the Senate last year, which resulted in bipartisan passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021. That bill proposed $52 billion in assistance to the semiconductor industry as well as nearly $200 billion more on research and development projects meant to bolster U.S. competitiveness.
The House is likely to pass its own version of the legislation, meaning the two chambers would have to come to an agreement on final language before a bill could go to the White House to be signed into law. It remains unclear whether an eventual House bill would garner any Republican support in that chamber, or whether compromise language would continue to attract the Republican support that helped the Senate's original bill come to the floor for a vote.
But in a statement this week, the president made it clear that he would like to see the legislation on his desk.
Biden praised the "transformational investments" that the legislation would make. With the proposed legislation, he said, "We have an opportunity to show China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century - forged by the ingenuity and hard work of our innovators, workers, and businesses."
Countering Chinese subsidies
In Congress, even among conservative lawmakers who generally shy away from government intervention in the economy, there is recognition of a need to balance the scales for U.S. companies that frequently find themselves in competition with Chinese firms that receive subsidies and other preferences from the government in Beijing.
When the Senate passed its version of the bill in June, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, "This type of targeted investment in a critical industry was unthinkable just a couple years ago, but the need for smart industrial policy is now widely accepted."
That comes as a surprise to many observers of U.S. policymaking.
"There is somewhat of an ambivalence, or confusion, in D.C. where, on the one hand, people want to say that China's industrial policies are both very unfair, and also very important in explaining China's competitive success," Gerard DiPippo, a senior fellow in the Economics Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA. "But then, they also seem reluctant to actually engage in those policies because they think those policies are actually very distortionary and ineffective. So, it sort of cuts both ways."
Semiconductors in focus
Despite strong economic growth in the U.S. over the past year, a persistent shortage of semiconductors has caused some sectors of the economy - the automobile industry in particular - to lag behind. Supply chain disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have been difficult to resolve, leading many members of Congress to propose funding to "re-shore" domestic production of semiconductors.
Both the Senate bill and the version being considered by the House of Representatives would funnel $52 billion in grants and subsidies to the industry.
However, China is not a major competitor of the United States when it comes to semiconductors. While China does make some semiconductors, the largest manufacturer in the world is TSMC, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. in Taiwan.
'Decoupling' seen as troubling
Some American companies that do business with China are concerned about the long-term efforts of both countries to achieve economic independence from each other.
"China is upset with efforts to increase export restrictions on U.S. goods, block Chinese companies from accessing certain U.S. goods, and restrict some direct investments in China," Doug Barry, a senior director with the U.S.-China Business Council, told VOA in an email exchange.
"They worry about incentives to relocate production of some critical goods back to the U.S. At the same time, China is working to reduce dependence on certain goods like advanced semiconductors, while slow-walking promised market access reform and opening," Barry said.
"Our members worry that these efforts signal mutual economic decoupling that's not in the long-term interest of either country," he said. "Both governments need to engage in direct talks to better manage differences, adhere to WTO principles, and ensure that Phase One Agreement commitments are fully met."
Government interference 'misguided'
Ryan Young, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told VOA that efforts by Congress to mimic China by trying to manipulate the U.S. economy are "misguided" at best, and at worst destructive.
"This falls into what I think of as the 'But they do it, too,' argument," Young said. While it is indisputable that the Chinese government creates all sorts of advantages for certain sectors within its economy, he said, it doesn't follow that the answer is for the U.S. to do the same.
Despite government support, large Chinese tech firms are burdened with substantial debt, operational inefficiencies and political meddling, he said.
Further, Young noted that the semiconductor industry, which the legislative efforts target above all else, has already taken steps to bring some of its production into U.S. territory, with chip giant Intel expanding a $50 billion complex of chip manufacturing facilities in Arizona.