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Giant U.S. tech investment bill nears Senate passage

May 27, 2021
In The News

Congress is on the cusp of something that doesn’t happen often these days: passing a bill with wide, cross-party support. Its co-author, South Bay Rep. Ro Khanna, believes the landmark technology investment legislation would not only have a big impact in his Silicon Valley district, but all over the U.S.

The Fremont Democrat has spent years developing his Endless Frontier Act, which directs more than $100 billion over five years into spurring research and development around the country. The bill creates a new tech-focused division within the National Science Foundation charged with funding projects in ground-breaking fields, such as biotech, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The legislation is expected to pass the Senate on Thursday with wide support as the centerpiece of a package of bills meant to kick-start U.S. innovation and boost the nation’s competitiveness against China. It’s also gaining steam in the House, which will need to approve the bill before the president can sign it into law.

In addition to representing the largest increase in federal science funding since the 1960s, the Endless Frontier Act also poises the 44-year-old Khanna for the biggest win of his congressional career, one that would lend credence to his brand as a progressive pragmatist.

“This has been my highest priority and would dwarf anything else I’ve achieved in Congress to get this through,” Khanna said in an interview. “It’s transformative.”

The bill’s name is a nod to the 1945 report for the president “Science, The Endless Frontier,” written by inventer and policymaker Vannevar Bush, which prompted major post-war investment in science and technology and helped lead to today’s engineering and tech industries. Khanna said major firsts in his legislation include distributing funding to establish tech hubs across the country and investing in applied science alongside theoretical research.

The bill has been in the works for more than two years by Khanna and his co-authors, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc. Khanna says he was inspired by the work of MIT professors Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, who wrote a book called “Jump-Starting America” that lays out an argument for massive investments in innovation. Khanna and Schumer connected over those shared legislative goals.

The Democrats found Republican partners and got to work drafting legislation and building coalitions to support it. That work has included a time-consuming amendment process in committee and on the Senate floor, as well as joining the bill up with similar legislation, a rare example of shoe-leather politicking in the largely dysfunctional Washington of recent years.

The expected end result bolsters the enigmatic brand crafted by Khanna, who joined Congress after an upset win in 2016 over eight-term San Jose Democrat Mike Honda. He’s an outspoken progressive who bucks his party at times to push it left and yet whose legislative success record is stocked with bipartisan, pro-tech laws. Despite his strong criticism of Donald Trump, he had more bills signed by the former president than any other California Democrat.

But those bills weren’t groundbreaking, Khanna readily acknowledged at the time, and the Endless Frontier Act last year was merely an aspiration marker amid a Republican Senate and White House and a shortage of support from colleagues, especially on the key House Science Committee. That changed in 2021, with President Biden taking office, Schumer taking the top post in the Senate and more work from Khanna to build support in the House.

“To have a transformative moment like this requires a perfect storm,” Khanna said. “We have a president who has made this one of his highest priorities and a White House staff that is very engaged, we have a Senate majority leader who literally has been relentless and made this the highest priority, we have two Republicans who have been working on this and putting their necks on the line for two years.”

Of course, the bill has its critics. Some on the right, like analyst Yuval Levin, worry that massive investments without adequate planning can set up promising projects for flameouts. Conservatives — rightly or wrongly — saw the collapse of solar startup Solyndra during the Obama administration as symbolic of this risk.

Others who support the ideals of the bill, such as the Niskanen Center, a free-market think tank, bemoan that the original monetary investment of the legislation has been scaled back or redistributed by amendments, undercutting its potential impact.

There’s also debate over the proper tone toward China. Some hawks have sought to make the bill more aggressive against potential Chinese influence in American research. Progressives and other activists fret the bill and the rhetoric around it are already fanning dangerous anti-Asian American sentiment.

For his part, Khanna has faith in the legislative process to produce the best bill that can become law.

Tech industry observers largely embrace the effort. Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley-based forecaster and adjunct professor at Stanford, calls the bill an essential recognition that research which may not pay off for decades needs to be funded by government. “I don’t recall the last time we saw anything like this really come out of Washington,” he said.

“The free market doesn’t do long-term R&D well,” Saffo said, noting innovations as commonplace as the computer mouse have their origins in government research programs. “Innovation is a relay race, and the relay race begins with fundamental research. That’s then passed on to applied research and it’s passed on to companies and then on to entrepreneurs.”

The bill will end up packaged into other legislation. In the Senate, Schumer has rebranded Endless Frontier as the centerpiece of the United States Innovation and Competition Act, which brings together several bipartisan bills with broad support under the umbrella of competition. They include one to support semiconductors and 5G wireless networks, a few to bolster the U.S. against China economically, and others on specific areas such as American manufacturing and supply chains.

A procedural vote Thursday, after some last-minute deal-making, advanced that bill by a vote of 68-30 — a veritable landslide in the 50-50 split body.

The House path is still taking shape, but Khanna expects it to pass as part of a broader National Science Foundation authorization that is working its way through committee, with a final version to be reconciled between the two chambers before heading to Biden’s desk. While he admits he wishes the dollar amounts were larger, Khanna defended the direction of the bill and sees its generally favorable reception in the Senate as evidence of consensus.

Gruber, the MIT professor and economist who worked with lawmakers on the bill’s development, still wishes it were closer to Khanna’s original idea of nearly $1 trillion in investments and with a different model of distribution for tech hubs nationally.

Still, the bill would benefit Silicon Valley, Gruber said, not only by laying the groundwork for the inventions of the future, but by distributing wealth and tech jobs nationally instead of further clogging up a region that already has skyrocketing home prices and long commutes.

“I view it as a rising tide, I do think, and actually think it would be good for America, if some of the jobs in Silicon Valley actually went to places where people didn’t have to drive two hours and could actually afford a house,” Gruber said. “What’s good for America is good for Silicon Valley ... We need to have a set of consumers who can afford to make what Silicon Valley is making.”

Khanna said on a personal level, this bill is the first opportunity he’s had to achieve his goals on a “broad scale,” unlike his smaller successes: “It’s the type of broad coalition politics I’ve aspired for.”