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Congress Would Rather Spend Money on China Anxiety Than Climate Change

The Competes Act sailed through where Build Back Better floundered. That’s a troubling sign of politicians’ priorities.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands behind a podium labeled "America Competes Act of 2022."
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As it limped through negotiations in Congress and the White House, the Build Back Better Act was known less for its contents, including clean energy tax credits, incentives for electric vehicles, and ambitious welfare state expansions, than its top-line price tag: first the $6.5 trillion advocated by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, then the $3.5 trillion compromise, and finally the meager $1.75 trillion that West Virginia Senator and unofficial president Joe Manchin dictated from his perch above a critical fiftieth Senate vote. That number could shrink further. Throughout, Manchin has repeated a familiar complaint from conservative Democrats: “How are you going to pay for it?”

It’s odd, then, that a massive $350 billion bill known as the America Competes Act soared through the House last week with almost no discussion as to its impact on the federal deficit. The question of how to pay for its expansive provisions—grouped under the loose umbrella of competing with China—was barely raised in the rapid push to bring it to a vote, sidestepping the prolonged back and forth about tax hikes that helped grind the Build Back Better Act to a halt. (Build Back Better, which combined spending with a progressive taxation program, drew almost universal ire from major corporations, including the fossil fuel industry, which poured money into the coffers of conservative Democrats to squash it.)

Some things, it seems, just don’t need to be paid for. That’s long been the case for the Pentagon, which got a $768 billion reauthorization late last year. And now it seems to be the case for the Competes Act.

At more than 2,900 pages, the bill more prosaically known as H.R. 4521 contains an odd grab bag of initiatives. Its flagship items are $52 million over five years for semiconductors, $45 million over six years to bolster supply chains, and then $160 million for scientific research and innovation, all framed as a way to counter China’s “malign influence.” There’s a lot of money for research into clean energy, including a doubling of the National Science Foundation budget, as well as $4 billion in 2022 and 2023 for the Green Climate Fund, a U.N.-created body to fund climate mitigation efforts in the developing world, along with support for public financing of clean energy projects overseas. There are also measures that more progressive members were able to add in the rush to pass the bill, like a provision for debt relief to the global south, inserted by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Plenty of the Competes Act’s line items might come as a surprise, given that the bill has been framed as a piece of innovation policy. Hundreds of millions of dollars, for example, are dedicated to bolstering military and police forces from Latin America to the Indo-Pacific region. Eighty-one million dollars is earmarked through 2026 for the International Military and Educational Training Program in Latin America and the Caribbean, a program that trained leaders of the coup against Manuel Zalaya’s democratically elected government in Honduras in 2009. There’s also a measure introduced as a stand-alone bill last year by Republican Florida Representative Michael Waltz to “prohibit malign foreign talent recruitment programs,” as well as a “China Watcher” initiative introduced by Republican Claudia Tenney, and generous funding for U.S. propaganda abroad and redirecting Pentagon and State Department resources toward Asia. Such shifts, the bill argues, assume “an unconstrained resource environment.” In other words, there’s always money for great power rivalry.

Centrist pundits have long pitched national security framings—with regard to China, especially—as a means of shepherding secretly progressive policy through Congress by appealing to hawkish Republicans. Just one Republican, however, voted for the America Competes Act. GOP members opted instead to call it the America Concedes Act, not, seemingly, because the scale of industrial policy is laughably small in comparison to Chinese investments in key export industries but because the bill mentions climate change and has the gall to create a chief diversity officer at the National Science Foundation. These and other more laudable provisions are likely to be stripped out in the Senate as lawmakers reconcile it with the upper chamber’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, or USICA, from last year.

At this point, it should be clear even to centrists that throwing jingoistic bones to the Republican Party won’t change the fact that conservatives don’t think Democrats should be allowed to govern. The Competes Act isn’t a clever way to pass climate policy, so much as a Frankenstein bill that lurches foreign policy debates ever closer toward the GOP’s bloodthirsty Red Dawn fantasies.

Imperial decline is a strange thing to watch. The U.S. apparently has unlimited funds to fight foreign wars or gin up new ones. Yet even Democratic lawmakers can’t seem to agree on whether Americans should have health care, or whether it’s OK to spend money countering a genuine threat to human civilization.