Another Grab-bag Bill: What Might It Mean for US Climate policy?
We’re not going to get distracted this time, and the Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate will see this thing across the goal line. The Senate bill is perhaps the most bold and comprehensive China competitiveness legislation that our country has ever passed.
Senator Todd C. Young (R-IN)
With all the guff going on in Washington these days, it’s rather remarkable that Republicans and Democrats have managed—on occasion—actually to accomplish something positive. Standouts over the last twelve months include the pandemic relief bills and the bipartisan infrastructure framework.
Will there be more? What an excellent question. I wish I had an equally excellent answer—which is not to say I have no answer.
It turns out there’s a new opportunity in town. It puts aside—for a moment at least—the gaping partisanship that’s marred and stalled American politics for decades.
Last June , the Senate passed the $250 billion United States Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260 or USICA) by a 68 to 32 vote of the Senate. The action is now in the House as the America Competes Act of 2022 (H.R.4521). Once the House passes its version, they will go to a conference committee of the House and Senate to reconcile their differences.
Before downloading a copy of the bill(s), readers should know they’ll be looking at three thousand pages. Congress.gov, my go-to place for bill status and text, warns that the download may take several minutes or possibly cause your browser to become unresponsive. The table of contents alone is 46 pages long.
It’s the habit these days to put together massive bills covering a vast range of issues. The Build Back Better Act was one of the smaller bills—tipping the scales at 1,100 pages.
President Biden has indicated his support for the House bill commending the lower chamber for taking an important step forward…in advancing legislation that will make our supply chains stronger and reinvigorate the innovation engine of our economy to outcompete China and the rest of the world for decades to come. (Emphasis added)
The President has called H.R.4521 the type of transformational investment in the nation’s industrial base needed to show China and the rest of the world that the 21st century will be the American century.
Both the House and Senate bills offer up a smorgasbord of possibilities—many having to do with improving US competitiveness with China, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The legislation seeks to promote resilience in the Caribbean to natural disasters, severe weather events, and a changing ocean environment by authorizing appropriations supporting the US Caribbean Resilience Partnership.
Readers should note that the USICA, like the infrastructure bill, doesn’t actually provide funding for projects—that’s the task of the appropriations committee. Authorizing bills, like USICA, give agencies the license to spend the funds once they make it into their coffers.
Biden and the supporting members of Congress aren’t shy about calling China out. The swirl of words used in the legislation and much of the literature and analyses go so far as to pitch US partnerships in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America as in opposition, i.e., competition, to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Even at that, Republicans are calling for harsher trade measures against China than are in the USICA.
The Belt and Road Initiative is the framework China is using to expand its reach to nations worldwide. The Initiative uses its support for maritime and land corridors to speed the delivery of Chinese products to the UK and EU—with all roads leading back to Beijing.
It’s clear that China looks at Latin America and the Caribbean for their natural and cultivated resources as well as a possible land bridge alternative, e.g., a rail line, to the Panama Canal.
According to a study by Boston University, China looks to Latin America for food, oil, refinery investments, and minerals – such as lithium which is a key “ingredient” of batteries used by most portable consumer electronics, including cell phones and laptops.
But I digress.
I’ve written before of the nearly 180-degree difference between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Much of their differences in style can be related to their standing with the former president.
McConnell is on Trump’s I’ll-get-even-with-you list. The former president continues to strike out at the Senate Minority Leader, calling him, at various times, a loser, RINO (Republican In Name Only), a dumb son of a b----h, and a stone-cold loser. The Senator is also stone-cold indifferent about what Trump has to say—from what everyone can tell.
McConnell is being mostly reactive—content to let the Democrats damage each other. He’s also been steadfast in his refusals to respond to questions concerning what he’d do if the Republicans take the Senate in November.
In the meantime, he’ll say no to most things but not to all, e.g., a government shutdown. When he can, he’ll bait Trump by doing something he knows will annoy him, e.g., working with the Democrats to raise the US debt ceiling.
Over on the House side, McCarthy and his hyper-conservative lieutenants, e.g., Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Steve Scalise (R-LA), are actively banging away to fabricate a 2022 game plan to be used in the midterm. Part of the plan is their promising to exact revenge on the Democrats. It means McCarthy will look to impeach President Biden and strip progressives, including Representatives Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Omar (D-MN), and Schiff (D-CA), of their committee assignments.
In the meantime, McCarthy and his minions oppose the insertion of language by House Democrats that would provide $45 billion in loans and grants to support domestic manufacturing of critical goods and $600 million to construct manufacturing plants to make solar products.
There is also Republican opposition to $52 billion in subsidies to encourage the development of a domestic semiconductor manufacturing industry. The bill also authorizes monies for the National Science Foundation, setting criminal penalties for researchers who fail to disclose foreign support for their projects and bolstering the State Department’s ability to deny suspicious visa applications for researchers interested in sensitive technologies.
House Republicans are refusing to support the bill primarily because of the efforts of Democrats to tuck climate-responsive measures and policies throughout the legislation. It’s not to say Senate Republicans are thrilled by the House additions.
At the moment, the difference between GOP senators and their counterparts in the House is that the members in the upper chamber are willing to negotiate—and appear anxious to get some positive things done in time for the elections.
It’s fair to say that the closer the midterms, the less likely will be any collaboration. We’re looking at a five- or six-month window before both sides close down for full-time campaigning in the 2022 elections—with odd exceptions in cases of emergencies.
It was just weeks ago when most on Capitol Hill thought the bill(s) dead. The recent House action has re-energized the Senate—Republican and Democrat—much like the bipartisan infrastructure framework did in 2021. Even McConnell voted for the Senate bill, although he didn’t request it of his caucus members.
Another distinguishing feature of the USICA bill (S.1260) is Manchin favors it. In this regard, the USICA/infrastructure bills are models for cross-aisle collaboration.
Senator Sanders voted against the bill knowing it would pass with Republican support. The Vermont Independent wanted to see a much fuller reconciliation package than was proposed. Sanders was not pleased with Manchin’s prevailing on the White House to remove the national clean electric standard from the BBBA before it was even introduced.
We see in the debates over the USICA a template for temporary action—albeit a very limited one. House Republicans will continue voting Nay and promising revenge. Senate Republicans will have a certain amount of discretion—whether and when they execute it will depend on the issue.
Democrats—progressive and moderate—understand the predicament they’re in to maintain even the slimmest majorities in the House and Senate. After all, didn’t the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Representative Jayapal (D-WA), just say:
Let’s take those things…put them together and pass them in the Senate. There’s already text. It’s very easy now to go through and make that bill match the things he said he would do.
Didn’t she? Time will tell, as it always does.
Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
 June 2021
 USICA was formerly called the Endless Frontier Act
About the author
Joel B. Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney and the founder and principal of The JBS Group, a Washington, DC consulting firm. Joel is currently advising the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization project at Columbia University’s Sabin Center along with his other clients.