U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. Courtesy of senator's office.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Rep. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, have been named to the conference committee that will work out differences between the House and Senate versions of landmark technology bills that each chamber has passed.

Last June, the Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act by a bipartisan 62-28 vote. In February, the House passed the America Competes Act on a nearly party-line vote of 222-210. The bills are aimed at improving U.S. competitiveness with China. The Senate version calls for $250 billion in spending; the House version $350 million.

Republicans who have opposed the bills – both of which run nearly 3,000 pages — say they are too expensive, go too far in providing certain subsidies and include too many provisions that aren’t necessary. Proponents say the bills are necessary to build up American industries so they can regain global market share from China.

Warner has been involved in the portion of the Senate bill that seeks to encourage more domestic production of semi-conductors. In 1990, 37% of the world’s computer chips were made in the United. Today, only about 12% are. Three-fourths are now made in Asia. The biggest maker is South Korea but the Semiconductor Industry Association projects that by 2030 China will be the world’s biggest manufacturer of microchips, which are necessary for almost anything that’s computerized, from autos to computers to video games.

In a statement Thursday, Warner said: ““For too long, the United States has allowed our global competitors to out-invest and out-hustle us in regard to our innovation economy. This competitiveness bill will make major investments in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, create good-paying jobs, and provide the tools our country needs to continue competing in the global economy while addressing some of the major causes of economic inflation. I am honored to be a member of the conference committee that will work to get a strong bill to the president’s desk ASAP.”

Also this week, Warner and the rest of the Virginia congressoinal delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce to make the case for Virginia as a future location for major semiconductor production and research facilities.

In a separate statement, McEachin said: “As we look to solidify our strong economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, we must ensure we are taking steps to increase our global competitiveness and bolster manufacturing here at home. Reaching a final agreement on this legislation is a top priority, as it will help modernize our supply chains, address inflationary pressures, and create new jobs for the American people.”

Virginia’s other senator, Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, has been involved in another portion of the bill that would allow Pell Grants to be used for short-term technical programs at community colleges. Currently, they can only be used for semester-long academic programs. During a recent talk with students, faculty and staff at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, Kaine said enactment of that provision would be “dramatic and transformational” in terms of getting more people into technical fields. Despite widespread support in the Senate, that provision wasn’t included in the Senate bill but did make it into the House bill. Kaine said then he hoped the conferees would produce a final bill by the end of April.

Both the House and Senate versions also include money to create “regional technology hubs” around the country as a way to disperse the technology sector beyond a relative handful of so-called “superstar” metros, such as Silicon Valley. The Senate version sets about $10 billion to create 18 such hubs, three in each zone covered by the Economic Development Administration. Virginia is the southernmost state in the zone that runs north to Maine. The House version calls for “no fewer than 10” and specifies that “not fewer than one third” be in a place that benefits a “rural or other underserved community.” In a commentary published in January, Cardinal News editor Dwayne Yancey looked at the odds that one of those tech hubs might wind up in Southwest and suggested that the New River Valley has the best chance because places with research universities such as Virginia Tech will be given preference.