Congress can’t agree on much, but it can agree on China.
The harmony is so deafening that lawmakers spent nearly 10 hours across two committees in the House on Tuesday agreeing something must be done about Beijing – and done together, preferably.
“We must practice bipartisanship,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois during his opening remarks as the ranking Democrat on a new Republican-led panel focused specifically on China.
“For the last three decades, both Democrats and Republicans underestimated the CCP,” Krishnamoorthi said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party, which he said wanted American leaders and lawmakers to be “fractious, partisan and prejudiced.”
It’s a drastic change for a Capitol Hill more used to bickering, “roadblock” and point-scoring between Democrats and Republicans.
Fortunately, then, two committees were in on the act.
Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who has headed the Foreign Affairs Committee since his party took back House control in January, opened the day by leading his panel’s own lengthy discussions on the U.S. rivalry with Beijing.
Sitting from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with only about a half-hour break for lunch, McCaul’s panel quizzed Biden administration officials including Daniel Krittenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, and Alan Estevez, the under secretary of commerce responsible for much of U.S. chip policy, before debating a new bill that may ban TikTok.
“As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it is my priority to make sure Congress and this administration are working together in a bipartisan fashion to confront this generational threat,” McCaul said of the CCP during his own opening remarks. “I stand ready to work with the administration and those on the other side of the aisle.”
The Democrats on the panel as well as the Biden appointees appearing before it were in lockstep with McCaul’s Republicans that Beijing represented an unheralded threat to U.S. security.
“I would also say TikTok represents a threat,” Estevez said, noting the app was currently being investigated by the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
The committee later unanimously passed a number of China-related bills, including on organ trafficking of Uyghurs at the hands of Chinese authorities, to the full House of Representatives to be voted on.
Main event of the evening
As primetime arrived, the 61-year-old McCaul had to cede the limelight to the House’s newest special panel for its own three-hour session: the new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.
Led by Gallagher, a 38-year old former Marine from Wisconsin, the special China panel seemed keen to take a leaf out of the book of the last “select” House panel – the Democrats’ January 6 inquiry – by getting proceedings underway at a TV-friendly time of 7 p.m.
Bearing the hearing title “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America” – as opposed to McCaul’s “Combatting the Generational Challenge of CCP Aggression” – the panel in some ways paralleled the day’s earlier hearings by quizzing administration officials.
But where McCaul focussed efforts on Biden officials, Gallagher, who was first elected in 2016, preferred a more friendly spate of faces.
He brought in two former Trump administration officials: H.R. McMaster, Trump’s onetime national security adviser, and Matt Pottinger, his National Security Council director for Asia.
In a made-for-television twist, the hearing was interrupted by two young protesters who bore signs that said “China is not our enemy” and “Stop Asian Hate,” with both being escorted out unwillingly by congressional security. The pair of protesters, McMaster promptly told the panel, were themselves evidence of Chinese subversion.
“I think these eruptions are indicative of really the effect the United Front work department has had,” McMaster said. “They have reinforced, to some degree, what you might call a bit of a curriculum of self-loathing that has taken hold in academia for many years.”
By the time all was done, the two House committees together had sat and discussed China nearly unbroken from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with absences only from about 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 to 7 p.m.
The only tension in the day was when McCaul introduced a bill that would allow the Biden administration to ban TikTok. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York who chaired the committee until last year, moved to amend McCaul’s bill to make it less broad.
Exasperated, McCaul, who called TikTok a “spy balloon in your phone,” said he was surprised Meeks did not agree to the bill. Another Democrat intervened to ask McCaul to define the word “algorithm,” leading the Republican to appear annoyed.
“Why are we even talking about this?” he said in a rare outburst.
The Democrats reiterated they had no issue with the proposed bill’s broader designs on TikTok, and only wanted alterations. Reaching 5 p.m., the committee hearing was adjourned until Wednesday.
But the general bipartisanship did not go unnoticed in Beijing.
Speaking at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s regular press conference on Wednesday, spokesperson Mao Ning accused U.S. lawmakers of playing politics and said they should “stop framing China as a threat.”
She added that Americans should “abandon their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality, develop an objective and rational perception of China and U.S.-China relations,” and “stop trying to score political points at the expense of US-China relations.”
In such a rare area of unity in Washington, that seems unlikely.
“This is not a polite tennis match,” Gallagher said during his new committee’s primetime hearing on Tuesday. “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.”