The uncertain future of the USICA

Yes, Democratic and Republican senators said all the right things before and after they voted 68-32 last week to support the controversial United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA). In fact, one senator after another used the word “bipartisan” to describe the effort it took to get the USICA passed, but in many cases it seemed the person uttering the term was trying to make the best out of something average. 

The bitter reality is senators from across the political spectrum demonstrated that bipartisan spirit by agreeing that verbally attacking China remains political objective number 1 in Washington. Otherwise, they scratched and clawed to get pet projects added to the USICA. Many of those senators succeeded; but in doing so, they watered down one of the bill’s supposed pillars.

Senators told the American people the USICA was critical because China was gaining on the U.S. in many scientific and technological areas. Critics argued that even if that was true, the U.S. retained a significant advantage, so throwing billions of dollars at something that was not essential seemed like bad policy. Senators pressed ahead, though the wheeling and dealing needed to gain more “yea” votes ultimately reduced the amount of money that was supposed to go toward research and development. However, the sections within the USICA directed squarely at China largely remained untouched as the negotiations developed.

A host of senators ignored the critics who warned that the USICA was especially dangerous now because of the resurgence in anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. Instead, they insisted that the bill, which is a 1,400-page monstrosity, is absolutely essential to protect the U.S. from…you got it, China.  

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said he was tired of watching “China take advantage of us in ways legal and illegal over the years.”

Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, insisted the USICA would address “unfair competition we’re seeing from communist China.” 

Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, scoffed at any talk the U.S. was “resurrecting a Cold War mentality.” 

Then what exactly is the U.S. resurrecting, senator?

But the reality is the USICA is nothing like it was designed to be. And it heads to the House of Representatives, a body that appears interested in weakening it even more. That body appears eager to strip some of the most blatant anti-China rhetoric from any bill it passes. And at some point, the varying Senate and House versions will need to be reconciled. Right now, that means either the House would have to agree to the more strident language, or the Senate would have to back down.

Pass the popcorn.

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