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Opinion/Editorial: Warner prevails over partisanship with computer chips

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Senate Intelligence

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., speaks during a hearing.

Congratulations to Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner for stubbornly pushing a computer chip manufacturing bill through the Senate. It provides $52 billion to promote U.S. chip making facilities and set up tax credits to help the industry, as well as providing for future spending on science and research and development.

After more than a year of wrangling, the legislation finally won approval last Wednesday on a 64-33 vote. As this editorial went to press, the bill was expected to pass the House and be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

That 32 Republican senators and erstwhile Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders voted against the chips bill and dozens of Republican House members and a handful of Democrats were expected to vote against it boggles the mind.

This country faces a computer chip shortage that leaves otherwise finished new cars sitting idle in lots unavailable for sale. The lack of U.S. chip manufacturing facilities leaves U.S. national security in the hands of Taiwanese chip makers. U.S. defense weapons and technology depend on chips to operate. Ceding such a critical component to a foreign country—even a friendly one – is a recipe for disaster. If China takes over Taiwan, our greatest military and economic rival stands to cook our technological goose.

As Warner pointed out in a stump speech that he offered hundreds of times in the past 12 months, “semiconductor chips are involved in anything that has an on and off switch, from cars, to fighter jets, to cell phones to televisions.” But while the U.S. built just 15 manufacturing plants in recent years, other countries around the world, including China, built 120. The U.S. share of the chip market shrank from 37% to 12%, Warner said.

In the face of this news, Congress hemmed and hawed for months. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the plug on a conference committee looking at earlier legislation that included chip making. That left Warner and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas hunting for nine Republican colleagues to join Warner, Cornyn and other Democrats to find 60 votes to end debate on the chips bill and bring it to a floor vote.

Members of Congress are too often spared the hard decisions of floor votes for political reasons. Good sense bills that legislators would look stupid voting against simply never get to a roll call.

With the chips bill, the process tested Warner’s bipartisan tenacity. A couple of weeks ago, he tweeted out an offer to strip the bill of almost anything that Republicans and Democrats could not agree on simply to get an up or down vote. The thing is, this bill was never what Washington insiders sarcastically call a “Christmas tree.” The term refers to bills on which politicians hang pet projects in exchange for their votes.

Recently in this space we visited the subject of dysfunctional partisanship. Even in a self-evident victory for the American people like chip manufacturing, progress crawls along so slowly that it seems participants might grind their teeth to the gums before they act, leaving no bite to what they do. Fortunately, Warner understood the bigger picture in the chip crisis. He started talking about it two years ago. In part, this is because of his history as a risk-taking tech entrepreneur. In part, it is because his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee gives him a very sophisticated and sobering understanding of U.S. security risks.

Given its military and economic implications, Warner thinks history may judge the chips bill “as one of the most significant pieces of legislation that the Congress has gotten to the president in years, if not decades.”

In Washington, they joke that lawmaking is like sausage making. Senate and House members pick and choose what to stuff into a sleeve of political skin. This chips bill took long enough to breed the animals, raise them, slaughter them and then argue about how much meat from each to put in.

These domestic political games gave the rest of the world a year’s head start solving the chip crisis. For America, that is no laughing matter.

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