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Lawmakers Make No Promises on BIS Funding Requests

The two authors of a bipartisan bill to boost U.S. technology competitiveness were lukewarm this week about the prospect of allocating more export control resources to the Commerce Department and stopped short of promising it more money, with one calling on the agency to be more efficient with what it has. And while they said they support Commerce’s updated China-related semiconductor export controls, they also said the U.S. should devote as much attention to expanding trade with close allies as it does to restricting trade with adversaries.

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The comments from Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., came nearly two months after Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo called for more funding for the Bureau of Industry and Security, saying the agency’s budget is about the “cost of a few fighter jets” (see 2312040041). BIS Undersecretary Alan Estevez last month called his agency’s annual budget “pocket change” (see 2312070074).

Bennet, speaking during a Jan. 24 event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Congress should consider increasing BIS funding. “I'm sure if Gina is asking for it, she probably has a good reason to be asking for it,” he said, “and I'll look at it.”

But he also said there needs to be a better process in place to evaluate when Commerce and other national security agencies need more funding for emerging and critical technology issues. Bennet pointed to the Global Technology Leadership Act he introduced alongside Young and other lawmakers in June, which would create a new government office dedicated to analyzing U.S. technology policies.

Bennet said the office would be able to get ahead of funding requests by pinpointing in advance specific government programs, like export control enforcement or implementation, that may need more money.

"This is exactly the reason why we need some people in the federal government that are devoted to these questions," he said. "You got to make decisions about what [type of technology] mattered yesterday and what doesn't really matter today, and I think Congress is institutionally really poorly situated to do that kind of analysis, to be charitable about it."

Young agreed, saying the office would give Congress an “early warning” about agencies that need more resources, which would give lawmakers “clarity on these matters on an ongoing basis” instead of waiting “for a crisis, which is what this might be characterized as within the Department of Commerce.”

But he also cautioned about injecting more resources into BIS. He pointed to a recent report released by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (see 2312070058), which in part said BIS hasn’t hired the right employees with its current funding, including the money that has been part of recent emergency supplemental Ukraine-related funding (see 2212200025). A BIS official told the Senate Banking Committee in May that BIS used part of that money to hire 16 new special agents, six intelligence analysts and two export control officers (see 2306010044).

But the Foreign Affairs Committee report, released in December, said BIS “has had opportunities to use the resources provided to them to increase the efficacy and efficiency of their work with talented personnel and technological modernization,” but the committee has “not seen improvement nor supplemental requests to improve the linguistic, geopolitical, targeting, and technical expertise of the bureau to address today’s threat landscape.”

BIS needs to root out “some efficiencies so that we don't have to spend an additional dollar of taxpayer money on things that aren't needed,” Young said. “We cannot fall victim to” the “impulse not to ever invest in government, especially critical functions like this one. But at the same time, we have to husband the resources of our constituents wisely.”

He said the Foreign Affairs Committee report “will guide us in that direction.”

Young and Bennet also said they both supported the Biden administration's October 2022 rules that updated BIS export control licensing policies for chip and chipmaking exports (see 2312120055). Bennet said the rules will help U.S. companies better compete with China “on a level playing field.”

But he also said that while the U.S. is restricting sensitive dual-use exports to Beijing, it also should be “transmitting this technology to our partners around the world so that they can have the benefit of developing it as well, both for commercial use and in some cases for dual use, so that we know they're not relying on Beijing.” He said this is going to “require us to be much more strategic about this than we have been for the last 40 or 50 years, and I look at those export controls exactly in that context.”

Young said he agreed with Bennet, adding that the “one major infirmity of the current policy” is that the U.S. hasn’t devoted enough attention to expanding free trade. “We have not further opened up the avenues for trade,” Young said. “In fact, we've gone the opposite direction, and therefore we're not harnessing -- fully maximizing -- the benefits of comparative advantage with Japan, with the European Union, with countless innovative economies around the world.”

He added that more free trade doesn’t mean scaling back export controls. “We can do both,” Young said. “We can place strictures on the export of high-tech components and dual-use components to a state capitalist regime like the Chinese Communist Party, but we can also continue to trade robustly and to adjust those trade policies based on risk assessments.” That’s a “nuance that is sometimes lost,” he said.

“Trade is not easy on the left or the right these days," he added, "so I want to continue to make an argument for trade.”