How Sen. Cantwell used classified briefings to build bipartisan support for historic CHIPS Act

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a former Seattle tech executive first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, at the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 7, 2022. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

If there’s one thing U.S. senators can likely agree on, it’s that there’s little that they agree about. So how did Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell recently manage to secure bipartisan support for passage of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act?

The Democratic lawmaker and others used a multi-pronged strategy that included educating colleagues about the security risk that the U.S. faced by losing its ability to develop and manufacture high-tech products. The approach worked, managing to outmaneuver opposition by Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Cantwell “relentless year in, year out” in working for passage of the legislation.

The bill includes incentives for reinvigorating semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. and invests in R&D for AI, robotics, clean energy, nuclear power, quantum and other areas.

It still had numerous critics, including a prominent member of Cantwell’s own party. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called it a “blank check” for the semiconductor industry and voted against it.

I interviewed Cantwell at the 2022 GeekWire Summit about the journey to building support for the legislation, which passed with bipartisan votes in the House and Senate. Here’s what she said.

Highlighting the security threat

While the U.S. invented semiconductors, the country only produces 12% of the chips worldwide despite the fact that they’re pervasive in our lives.

Now Taiwan is a leader in chip production, and China is spending billions to build its own capacity. The recent global chip shortage hampered production of essential goods including American cars. If growing political tensions were to cut off supply from Asian chip makers, it could impact the production of countless products, experts warn.

So Cantwell helped organize classified briefings for senators that were led by military heads, agency directors, and chief technology officers within various agencies. At meetings held in secure information rooms dubbed “SCIFs,” lawmakers could ask specific questions about security risks created by the lack of U.S. chip production.

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After the meetings, “people were ready to go,” Cantwell said. “They were like, ‘Let’s get this bill done. Let’s get this over the goal line.’”

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (left) and GeekWire reporter Lisa Stiffler at the 2022 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Sharing concerns about global competition

Lawmakers in 2021 passed initial legislation to boost American chip production. That earlier bill, Cantwell said, woke up the rest of the world to U.S. plans to grow its semiconductor production. Europe began taking steps that could have drawn manufacturing to its shores instead.

The potential economic impacts troubled lawmakers from across the aisle. They needed to approve the CHIPS Act to unlock funding for the semiconductor work.

“We’ve passed this [2021] bill, and you’re going to now let this investment go to Europe, instead? You’re going to be buying chips in euros. Let’s not do that,” Cantwell said. “And that became a compelling message to the Republicans.”

Threatened loss of Midwest manufacturing jobs

Intel, the U.S. chip manufacturing heavyweight, announced plans in January 2022 to build a new facility in Ohio. But when the CHIPS and Science Act and the financial support that it included became uncertain, the company canceled a July groundbreaking.

“They said, ‘Well, I’m putting this on hold until this legislation passed.’ And that also was a wake up call. Because listen, we haven’t seen a lot of big manufacturing announcements in the Midwest,” Cantwell said.

Following passage of the bill, Intel broke ground on the Ohio facility in September.

Connecting dots from R&D to implementation and jobs

The U.S. in recent decades has shown less interest in big investments in basic science. The CHIPS Act dramatically increases funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE) and national labs. It creates the role of tech directorate at NSF, who will help turn scientific discoveries into commercialized technologies.

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“This was literally saying we want to dust off our R&D skills at universities, at NSF, at DOE, and keep our eye on how to help manufacturers translate the science faster into application,” Cantwell said. “Why? Because we’re facing competition from people around the globe who are doing the same thing.”

Lawmakers still need to unlock the money for the basic science research through end-of-the-year government funding legislation.

In some ways, Cantwell said, the CHIPS Act became a test for American lawmakers to demonstrate that they could still come together over important issues.

“[W]e were being watched around the globe. Could we pull this off? Could the institution of Congress that seems so divided, so partisan, dwelling on misinformation — could you really come together and do something as successful as passing this legislation?” she asked. “And the answer, the answer was yes.”

The bill passed the Senate 64-33 with 17 Republicans — including McConnell — voting in favor. The House approved the measure 243-187.

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