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Nearly two months ago, I complained here on RealityChek that Congress was working way too slowly on legislation aimed at helping restore the U.S. competitiveness needed to reopen a wide lead over China in the dust in the race for future global technological competitiveness. Now I see that more time to pass the bill is needed after all – because the version approved by the Senate June 8 contains some fatal trade policy flaws that urgently need fixing.

Trade policy, as I’ve explained previously is a vital dimension of beating back the China challenge. But as reported yesterday in a New York Times article by former Trump chief trade official Robert E. Lighthizer, key amendments to the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act

would harm U.S. interests in three important ways: It would cut tariffs on medical supplies needed in a pandemic; reauthorize the so-called Miscellaneous Tariff Bill to cut tariffs on Chinese and other imports; and amend our enforcement laws in a way that will make it more difficult to battle predatory trade practices by our foreign competitors.”

And if you read the (2,300-page) bill, you see that he’s right. For example, a section titled “Facilitating Trade in Essential Supplies” (beginning on p. 1588) refers to America’s need “to maintain readiness and to surge production of essential supplies in response to an emergency” in national security and public health and safety, or in the security and functioning of “critical infrastructure.”

But consistent with an approach taken to this challenge by President Biden, the act makes clear that achieving these goals includes developing “a whole-of-government strategy to ensure that the United States has reliable access to essential supplies from its trading partners….” In other words, it will be equally fine if the nation remains dependent on imports of such goods. These two objectives clash with each other directly and violently.

If Washington could count on lots of reliable trade partners out there to step in in a pinch and fill supply gaps, this strategy of defining “Made in America” as “Made Overseas, Too” would be defensible (if not, in my view, optimal). But although the legislation directs federal officials to “identify unreliable trading partners,” its authors seem oblivious to just how many foreign governments qualified for this label with their bans and other curbs on vital medical goods during the height of the pandemic. It was 80 according to no less than the World Trade Organization (WTO).

According to Lighthizer, the bill would also undercut American industry’s broader ability to compete with China by renewing a Miscellaneous Tariff Bill that would reduce duties on more than 900 goods produced and exported by the People’s Republic. The list – which also includes hundreds of other goods, begins on p. 1526 and goes on (in tiny type) for thirty pages.

And the text also supports Lighthizer’s claims that the bill would “gut a provision that President Trump used to impose tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018,” and “also effectively surrender sovereignty over our own trade policy to the World Trade Organization by permanently weakening Section 301 unless the United States first wins a multiyear litigation before that body.”

Possibly, the most disturbing feature of the bill’s treatment of these so-called “301 tariffs” (named after the section of the 1974 Trade Act that initially authorized suc measures is the measure that bars the imposition of these duties without an analysis of their impact “on United States entities, particularly small entities, and consumers in the United States” (p. 1607), and additionally of whether they would “unreasonably increase consumer prices for day-to-day items consumed by low- or middle-income families in the United States” (p. 1609).

Although numerous RealityChek posts have documented (see, e.g., here) that none of the 301 tariffs had lasting effects on U.S. retail or wholesale price levels (largely because importers absorbed the higher costs), there’s no guarantee that significant time frames would be examined. In addition, there’s never any shortage of businesses or business organizations in particular ready to predict disastrous price hikes from any tariff increases regardless of the historical record. So the most powerful tool possessed by Washington to enforce trade agreements and combat foreign protectionism could well be neutered unless changes are made.

Finally, Lighthizer’s contention about permanently weakening America’s Section 301 authority appears borne out by pp. 1610-1611, which states that the process for excluding certain goods from that measure’s tariffs “shall not apply” in cases under consideration by the “dispute resolution process under the World Trade Organization [WTO].” In other words, if such U.S. tariffs are challenged at the WTO, they can’t legally be imposed until the WTO decides they’re kosher.

There shouldn’t be any doubt in anyone’s mind that time is not on America’s side as it tries to raise its competitiveness game, both against the Chinese and in general. But it’s also true that haste makes waste — and even worse. And these trade policy flaws in this China competitiveness bill aren’t eliminated, Americans will see a crucial economic and national security opportunity squandered.