The dysfunction that defines Washington, D.C. is facing a pressing test. Political leaders must get serious and get it right on two critical fronts – managing the competition from China and the threat from climate change.
The choices made this year on both of these issues will have repercussions for coming decades.
The Senate and House are increasingly at loggerheads on legislation over how to deal with both challenges despite the fact that these should be a no-brainer bipartisan slam dunks for the Congress. But they have run into yet another ideological buzzsaw.
A Senate bill, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, is explicitly focused on strengthening America’s technological competitiveness with China. It passed with bipartisan support and eight votes more than the filibuster threshold – a virtual miracle in the modern Senate. It was a testament to the importance of ensuring that China does not dominate next-generation technologies.
It has the support of the President, who noted that the $250 billion bill will allow for “generational investments in research and development…[and] empower[s] us to discover, build, and enhance tomorrow’s most vital technologies.”
It spreads the wealth around the country including building research capabilities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, expanding the definition of STEM to include energy and the environment analysis, and creating regional technology hubs.
Biden’s message was crystal clear, “We are in a competition to win the 21st Century, and the starting gun has gone off.”
Unfortunately, the Congress is stumbling out of the starting blocks.
The House complement to the Senate bill, the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement Act (EAGLE Act), is set for a committee vote that bleakly is expected to break along partisan lines. It has drawn fire because it provides billions to fight climate change, which the Senate bill excludes and is softer on China competition.
Other House legislation that supports greater federal investment in cutting edge science and technology programs and parallels research and development objectives raised in the Senate Innovation Act, also has drawn criticism because it lacks a pointed focus on competition with China.
Both China and climate change also underlie the brewing battle over two important infrastructure bills that are coming this year.
The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure agreement struck last week between Biden and the Congress is coupled with a “human infrastructure” bill that includes, among other things, increased funding to fight climate change.
This linkage imperils both bills because of the intense ideological differences on Capitol Hill. Conservatives are skeptical of massive spending on climate change and liberals wary of creating a new Cold War with China.
The reality is that both issues are not going away in this century, and it is necessary for the nation to address them in a sober and serious manner.
It makes little sense to ignore the ravages of climate change on the nation and the world. The unprecedented and oppressive heat in the Northwest is at least partly climate change influenced. And the persistent drought throughout the West has residents and officials bracing for yet another intense wildfire season.
Similarly, it imprudent to ignore the reality that China is intent on dominating 21st Century technology and challenging the international influence of the U.S.
No one wants another Cold War with its attendant nuclear weapons dangers, but the building blocks are being assembled. China is constructing over 100 new ICBM silos and rejecting efforts to engage it in nuclear arms limitation discussion. The U.S. is planning to spend close to $700 billion over 10 years to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. New weapon delivery technologies are being developed on both sides.
The fight against climate change and China’s influence is already a reality that requires more aggressive legislative responses. In this environment ideological rigidity is a national security liability.
The U.S. needs to win both of these competitions and that can only be done if its political players are willing to see the future clearly and act in concert and with compromise. Continued ideological dysfunction is a clear and present danger to the nation’s future.
Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security