Here’s one of the big differences between Richmond and Washington.
Richmond actually gets things done. You may not like everything the General Assembly does, of course, but you can count on this: Every bill that gets introduced will get acted on sometime in the next two months.
That’s not the case in Congress, which operates in a much different way. In Richmond, when a legislator introduces a bill, it means something. That bill may get strangled to death in a subcommittee at some odd hour but it will still get dealt with, one way or another. In Washington, when a legislator introduces a bill, it’s really just a press release because there’s no guarantee it will ever get acted on.
The Virginia General Assembly may have many faults but efficiency is not one of them. Our state legislature operates on strict deadlines. Today is the last day to introduce bills. By Feb. 15, each house must complete action on its own bills – the so-called “crossover.” By Feb. 20, each house must complete action on the budget. And so forth and so on until adjournment on March 12 – which, admittedly, sometimes gets ignored, but the other dates are hard and fast.
In Congress, there’s no deadline for anything, which is one of many reasons why nothing much ever seems to happen. We’d be much better off if Washington took some time management lessons from Richmond.
And that brings us to a bill that’s potentially important to Southwest and Southside, yet has languished in Congress for more than half a year.
I refer to the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which is intended to boost research into and commercialization of various technologies as a way to better compete with China. Beijing hates the bill, which suggests this might be a pretty good piece of legislation. This is also the rare piece of legislation in Washington that has bipartisan support. In the Senate, it was sponsored by both a Democrat (Chuck Schumer of New York) and a Republican (Todd Young of Indiana) and it passed a divided Senate by a 68-32 margin. Both of Virginia’s senators voted for it.
You’d think this would sail through the House, but it has not because, you know, Washington. The bill’s been languishing in the House since last June. Not until this week did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi produce the House Democratic leadership’s own version of the bill, which there goes by the title of the America Competes Act. Whatever. The name doesn’t matter. The content does. It sounds like the House is now ready to finally pass something so it can negotiate with the Senate on a compromise version. This is yet another way Washington is different from, and inferior to, Richmond. In Congress very little happens without party leaders giving the OK for it to happen. In Richmond, this bill would have moved through the process automatically and met whatever fate awaited it; the speaker of the House of Delegates doesn’t have to tell committees “now you can work on this bill.” Plenty of things happen in the shadows in Richmond, to be sure, but a lot more things happen in the shadows in Washington. In any case, nothing seems likely to happen soon. Our General Assembly might done for the year by the time Congress gets around to acting on this bill. Bloomberg says the goal is to agree on the bill’s contents “before midterm election campaigns are in full swing, and compromise becomes even more difficult in the Capitol.” This, of course, is a sorry state of affairs and it’s like this no matter which party is in charge.
The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act that the Senate passed is a massive bill – 2,726 pages. The House version runs even longer — 2,912 pages. All this reflects another of Washington’s worst tendencies, to merge lots of bills together into giant omnibus packages instead of voting on them individually. That’s another thing that slows down Washington, because those omnibus bills are often a way to attach some unrelated provision that otherwise couldn’t pass on its own – leading to situations where legislators vote against a worthy bill because of what they consider a “poison pill” contained therein. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, had something colorful to say about this a few years ago: “If there are a bunch of candy apples in there that are good things that are philosophically sound and they help my district and there is one big fat toad, yes, sometimes I have to swallow a toad. That’s called legislating.” More often than not, though, we have members of Congress who object to those big fat toads, so the candy apples never get passed. Or maybe the problem is we just have too many big fat toads. (My apologies to members of the bufonidae family.)
Enough of that, though. Here’s why this bill potentially – that’s the key word – matters to us in Southwest and Southside. Part of the purpose of this bill is to “spread the digital wealth” so that the nation’s technology industry is not so clustered in a handful of places. An analysis of Pitch Book data finds that 56% of the nation’s venture capital goes to just one place – San Francisco and the adjacent Silicon Valley. Another 20% goes to New York and Boston, which means 76% goes to just three metros. Add in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and the Washington metro, and 89% goes to just seven places, leaving just 11% for the rest of the country. A 2019 report by the Brookings Institution sliced the data somewhat differently, finding that between 2005 and 2019, some 90% of the nation’s innovation sector growth took place in just five places: Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and San Jose. Or four if you count San Francisco and San Jose as all part of the same economic area. Whichever metric you prefer, this kind of economic divide can’t be healthy for us as a society.
The Senate bill aims to start changing that by setting aside $10 billion – the total bill weighs in at $250 billion – to invest in R&D work in 18 regional “technology hubs.” The House version says “no fewer than 10,” and that difference is potentially quite important to us. Either way, the goal is to create lots of little Silicon Valleys around the country. Both versions specify that these be geographically dispersed around the country, about the Senate is more detailed (and to my thinking, better). The House version simply says “not fewer than one third” be in a place that benefits a “rural or other underserved community.” If there are only 10 hubs, then that would be four somewhere around the country. The Senate version, with 18, would award three to each of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s six regions – which puts Virginia in the running with every state north to Maine.
That may not sound so promising, but it is. The Senate bill requires that six of these 18 hubs must “benefit a small and rural community,” which it defines as any metro area with a population of 200,000 or less as of the 2010 census. That’s what the bill said before the 2020 numbers came out, so I’d expect it to get amended but that still doesn’t change our calculations. Here’s what we need to know: By this definition, the Roanoke and Lynchburg metros are out – they come in over 200,000. Bristol is out because it’s part of an officially defined metro with Kingsport, Tennessee, and that other Bristol (and a lot of other places) that’s also north of 200,000.
However, the New River Valley – technically, the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford Metropolitan Statistical Area – qualifies. It comes in at 166,378. The bill likes potential hubs to have a university involved and, realistically, it’s hard to be an R&D hub without a university. The New River Valley certainly has a big advantage here because it has both Virginia Tech and Radford University. However, Danville could qualify (Averett University). Farmville could qualify (Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College). Wise could qualify (the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). Bluefield could qualify (Bluefield University). These next places are outside of our intended coverage area but still worth mentioning: Staunton would qualify (Mary Baldwin University). Harrisonburg would qualify (James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University). Winchester would qualify (home of Shenandoah University). Charlottesville would not, a good thing for our purposes. Of all these places, though, New River would still seem to have the advantage because not all those other schools fit the profile of a research university while Virginia Tech sure does. However, if I were an administrator in one of those other communities, I’d still be commissioning a grant application anyway. You just never know.
Here’s what we do know: There’s no requirement that the six tech hubs designated for “small and rural” communities be equally distributed across the country. Maybe they all wind up in the Midwest or the Rockies, which have few big metros. But for figuring purposes, let’s assume that one of them winds up in this EDA zone. How would our contenders – with New River leading the pack, but some others making interesting cases – stack up against the competition?
Let’s do some speculating here: The three hubs awarded to our EDA zone won’t all be in the same place. That’s not good politics and, yes, I know you’re shocked, politics will come into play here. Given the geography of this zone, there will probably be one in New England, one in the New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania area and then one in the Virginia/Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia area.
We also can be pretty sure that New York, Boston and the Washington metro won’t be getting a hub – since the whole purpose here is to create economic diversity outside those places.
That probably means several things: If Roanoke or Lynchburg put in bids, they’re probably competing against Baltimore, Richmond, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville and Charleston, West Virginia, in this zone, just to name the obvious contenders. Of course, in a way, they’re also competing against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Syracuse and Rochester and who knows where else. It all depends on how the three hubs for this zone get configured, and where the one for a “small and rural” community goes (assuming we get any).
Perhaps the easier way to think about this is to think about who the competition in this zone might be for that one “small and rural” community hub. Here are the metros outside the Old Dominion in the Virginia-to-Maine zone that qualify on the basis of population, in descending order:
State College, Pennsylvania (home of Penn State).
Morgantown, West Virginia (home of West Virginia University).
Wheeling, West Virginia.
Weirton, West Virginia.
Beckley, West Virginia.
Ithaca, New York (home of Cornell University).
Ocean City, New Jersey.
Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Elmira, New York.
While it’s never wise to discount any competition, some of these clearly pose more competition than others – State College, Morgantown and Ithaca because they, like the New River Valley, are home to major universities. To be on the safe side, we have to assume that whoever makes this decision – ultimately the Secretary of Commerce – won’t have the same attachment to “small and rural” communities that we do. They’ll want a safe bet. Some small place with a major research university would seem a safer bet than a place that doesn’t.
Just looking at things mathematically, it would seem that the New River Valley has a 1-in-4 chance of being picked. Those seem pretty good odds, right? They certainly seem better than the odds that Roanoke and Lynchburg would face against their competition. It’s harder to know how smaller communities – Danville, Wise and so forth – would rank but those all seem longer shots (although I think Wise could put together a fascinating pitch on the basis that a tech hub ought to be in the heart of coal country).
So where does this leave us? It means Southwest and Southside – but particularly those in and around the New River Valley – should be rooting for the Senate version of this bill because it has far better odds of creating a tech center in this part of Virginia. What’s bad for Beijing could be very good for Blacksburg.