The COVID-19 pandemic turned out not only to be a global killer, but in economic terms, the proverbial hanging in the morning that focuses the mind.
“It opened everyone’s eyes,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, pointing to supply chain problems and a critical shortage of semiconductors.
“We didn’t want to be dependent on someone else,” Cantwell added, in an interview soon after President Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, bipartisan legislation crafted and steered by Cantwell in her capacity as chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The microchip was invented in the United States, yet our country’s share of semiconductor manufacturing capacity has decreased from thirty-seven percent of world production in 1990 to just twelve percent today, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. More than four-fifths of fabrication capacity is in Asia, and the U.S. is massively dependent on Taiwan for our computer chips.
With Chinese jets buzzing Taiwan’s airspace, and rocket “tests” fired into adjacent waters, big security concerns hang over a vital component in manufacturing.
“Very big,” said Cantwell.
During crafting of the CHIPS legislation, Cantwell steered members of the Senate and House to a secure conference room in the United States Capitol, for eye-opening briefings on U.S. foreign dependence and its dangers.
“Action wasn’t an optional thing: We needed to get this done,” said Cantwell.
Even when, after Congress’ Independence Day recess, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell tried to pull the plug on conference negotiations.
Or as Washington colleague Representative Derek Kilmer (D‑WA-6th District) put it: “The reality is that the nations with whom we compete aren’t sitting on the sidelines. They want to eat our lunch.”
The CHIPS and Science Act provides for transformative new investments in research, innovation and American manufacturing by accelerating U.S. production of critical semiconductor chips, strengthening supply chains, making more goods in America and investing in basic research on technologies of the future.
The legislation includes $52.7 billion for U.S. companies producing semiconductors, as well as billions more in tax credits to encourage investment in chip manufacturing. The Biden-Harris administration hopes private sector investment will be “spurred” by the bill.
Idaho-based Micron announced Tuesday it will invest $40 billion in memory chip manufacturing, with help from the CHIPS and Science Act.
The announcement came as President Biden signed CHIPS and Science on the White House lawn. In Cantwell’s words: “More than a dozen companies are expected to make announcements in the next few months about expanding the chip supply chain in the United States.”
The moment justified a bit of political hyperbole.
“Today is a day for builders,” said Biden. “Today America is delivering, delivering, and I honest to God believe that fifty, seventy-five, one hundred years from now, people who will look back on this week, they will now we met this moment.”
Seven weeks ago, it seemed the Biden-Harris Administration was on the ropes — at least in national media coverage. But now, the Beltway press sees the 46th President of the United States on a roll, with the CHIPS legislation, a modest gun safety bill, and approval of Sweden and Finland joining NATO.
The House is slated to approve the $369 billion Senate-passed package of climate and health initiatives later this week, in a Friday, August 12th vote.
Senator Cantwell does the grunt work of governing. She has repeatedly pulled progress out of a balky, divided body. She was able to get a Republican-controlled Senate to permanently authorize and fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Teaming with Senator Lisa Murkowski, R‑Alaska.
She also secured construction of an urgently needed new heavy-duty polar icebreaker with design of another on the way. She even put 311,000 acres of the upper Methow River valley, a watershed unmatched in its water quality, off limits to exploration by Canadian mining companies.
The CHIPS and Science Act posed intricate challenges. Starting with its name. Republicans were all for semiconductor manufacturing but, in Cantwell’s words, “They don’t like science.” A big part of the legislation is funding for basic research and development. It drew opposition from both the right and the left, from Republicans who claimed the federal government will be playing favorites in who get the money, and a familiar reprise from Senator Bernie Sanders, I‑Vermont.
“The question we should be asking is this: Should American taxpayers provide the microchip industry with a blank check at a time when semiconductor companies are making tens of billions of dollars in profits and paying their executive exorbitant compensation packages?” Sanders thundered in a Senate floor speech.
Cantwell put in guardrails to assure the money goes to create jobs in America, and not to pay for stock buybacks. Sanders was CHIPS’ lone opponent in the Democratic caucus. The legislation ultimately passed on a 64–33 vote, drawing significant Republican support and overcoming a filibuster.
“If you don’t play like they (foreign competitors) play, then you are not going to be manufacturing high tech chips, and they are essential for our national defense as well as our economy,” warned Senator Mitt Romney, R‑Utah.
With Cantwell drawing on the University of Washington as model, CHIPS/Science prods universities to patent and market technologies developed by their scientists.
“In this information Age, we have seen people publish their findings, but they don’t patent,” said Cantwell. “Our competitors read the materials and go out and do the development themselves.”
The legislation’s path through the House got tougher after Republicans flew into a fury when Senator Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin agreed on what would become the Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that seemed out of reach as recently as mid-July. Top House Republicans took out their anger at the deal on CHIPS and Science, urging a No vote. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R‑Washington, led opposition on the House floor.
The CHIPS and Science Act passed the House by a 243–187 vote, with twenty-four Republicans breaking with party leadership to support the bill.
Surprisingly, coming from a technology-driven state, none of Washington’s three Republican House members voted Yea.
Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo delivered sunny victory speeches Tuesday morning on a hot White House lawn. But it was Cantwell who kept her cool and made it happen.