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The Disappointing Senate China Bill

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U.S. and Chinese flags fly along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What began as an ambitious, multipronged legislative overhaul to jump-start America’s ability to compete with the Chinese regime is ending as a largely toothless messaging bill. The Senate just passed a 1,400-page $200 billion disappointment. The legislation was supposed to demonstrate Congress’s intent to confront Chinese Communist Party malfeasance and to modernize U.S. development of critical technologies, but the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act will do little of what it set out to accomplish.

Yesterday’s vote was preceded by months of negotiations and a lengthy discussion that invited lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to submit amendments. Four separate bills merged last month to create the final USICA package, the cornerstones of which were called the Endless Frontier Act and the Strategic Competition Act.

Initially, the former granted $100 billion to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research on critical technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, while the latter included a number of measures to equip the executive branch with more tools for drawn-out geopolitical competition with Beijing. It was encouraging sign that members of both parties could coalesce around the goal of confronting the Chinese party-state, and funding basic research is, in theory, a worthy role for the federal government.

But the devil is always in the details, especially in such a sprawling, cobbled-together bill. Conservatives complained that Endless Frontier disbursed too much money to the NSF, which has little experience with the technologies in question and even less of an ability to prevent the Party’s theft of intellectual property developed with the help of NSF grants. As a result of the concern, the funding was pared down a significant amount — to $81 billion. Still, the security problem persisted: With Beijing engaged in an aggressive military-civil fusion program designed to leverage intellectual-property theft for its military buildup, funding a significant R&D push without adequate safeguards is foolish and risky.

Meanwhile, the Strategic Competition Act portion of the since-consolidated bill includes some concrete measures to

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