Lawmaker: Congress Needs to Focus on China or Risk Being Lapped

Rep. Ed Case

Rep. Ed Case Carolyn Kaster/AP

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A Hawaii lawmaker said Congress needs more focus—and expertise—on the many threats China poses to the U.S.

Almost equidistant from Washington, D.C. and China, Hawaii has a unique vantage point in the ongoing battle for economic and technological supremacy waged by both nations.

“China keeps me up at night,” said Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, speaking Aug. 27 at the Defense One-Nextgov Genius Machines event in Honolulu. “They’ve been keeping me up 50 years.”

Specifically, Case said he worries about Chinese advancements in artificial intelligence, scientific advancement “and a whole range of other areas where we have been the best in world where China wants to equal or surpass us.” China, he said, is putting all its might—including its state-owned companies and billions of dollars in funding—toward dislodging the U.S. from its dominant position at the top of the tech heap.

The Trump administration has taken action to direct federal agencies toward AI adoption. For example, President Trump signed an executive order directing agencies to double down on efforts to advance AI. However, as Case pointed out, the order lacked one key ingredient: money.

Trump’s 2020 budget proposal also sought to cut non-Defense research and development spending by $10 billion. Because AI and machine learning are still nascent technologies, most of the money spent piloting early efforts stems from research and development dollars, not full-fledged government contracts.

Case, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said the legislative body has taken action to counter those cuts when possible.

“In the Appropriations Committee, we have certainly not agreed with the down funding on machine learning an AI, so we have tried to fund government in those areas,” Case said. “Not just in the military, but in applications across the spectrum. We’ve got to keep a coordinated focus in AI.”

Case lamented the lack of expertise in and around Congress in emerging tech, supply chain threats and Indo-Pacific issues. Over the summer, Case launched the Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus, a group comprised of bipartisan lawmakers to focus on those issues, as well as defense, trade and environmental challenges. Still, Case said Congress requires more expertise, especially in the tech arena, where issues are often complex and technical.

“We are understaffed from our expertise in Congress. In general, we don’t have enough experts in and around Congress,” Case said. He pointed to the Government Accountability Office as a source of expertise, but even as the agency plans to pour $15 million into a tech assessment office, Case said it often lacks the expertise “to sufficiently advise Congress.”

Case also took issue with the administration’s trade battle with China, suggesting the U.S. can trade with China on “free and fair terms” while “still trying to manage an ascendant China from the military perspective.”

“I don’t think there is an alternative from the world economic advancement perspective,” Case said. “We know if the U.S. and China are trading well together it is a good sign for the economy of the world.”