AUSTIN (Nexstar/AP) — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn admits he wasn’t always knowledgeable about semiconductor manufacturing, but once he learned of the threats to the supply chain and national security, he was all in.
Global shortages of semiconductor chips have made supply chain issues worse for consumers. The chips are likened to the “brain” behind everyday technology ranging from cars to phones to medical devices. Without them, modern-day necessities are not possible.
Cornyn likened semiconductors to “everything with an on and off switch” at a roundtable discussion with business leaders and the University of Texas in Austin on Monday. The university is proposing a project to boost research and development, with the help of potential funding from Congress.
The Texas senator was joined by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who has helped lead the legislative effort on the House side. The two have paired together to champion the “CHIPS for America Act,” which has garnered a rare bipartisan support and already passed in both chambers.
The Senate and House bills allot more than $52 billion for semiconductor production and research. Grants and loans from the federal government would subsidize some of the cost of building or renovating semiconductor plants.
Currently, the United States only produces about 11 to 12% of the world’s semiconductors.
During the roundtable discussion Monday, both congressmen expressed deep concerns about the national security risks that come with relying on foreign nations to produce these essential pieces of technology.
“These advanced semiconductor chips are everything from your phone to the most advanced weapons systems that we have in the United States government,” McCaul said. “We don’t want that compromised by our foreign nation adversaries, particularly in the climate that we’re in today.”
The United States does not produce any of most advanced semiconductor chips. Texas A&M supply chain consortium director, Xenophon Koufteros, said those are the tiniest chips — about 10 millimeters — and power things like computers.
Taiwan produces about 92% of those chips and the rest is produced in Japan. Koufteros said this could be disastrous if China were to escalate tensions and invade Taiwan.
“What if China moves into Taiwan? We’d have to shut down just about every industry. We won’t be able to make any phones, we won’t be able to make cameras, we won’t be able to make medical devices,” he said. “If that happens…then it’s going to be a total disaster for us here, not just in the United States but the whole world.”
He pointed to investments like the Samsung semiconductor manufacturing plant that is coming to Taylor in Central Texas. An executive from Samsung was at the roundtable with lawmakers Monday, who expressed optimism in the $17 billion expansion as it relates to easing supply chain issues.
“Adding capacity, whether it be manufacturing, or from research and development that we’re talking about today, is really important for us to help the United States meet its semiconductor interests,” said Jon Taylor, Samsung Austin’s corporate vice president of engineering.
Koufteros said having these types of plants in America is critical, but will take quite some time to build out the infrastructure and other logistics.
“We’re going the right way. But we should have done it years ago, we don’t have to wait until we are before a crisis to act,” he said.
What’s next for the CHIPS Act?
Now they have to work out considerable differences in the two bills. And Senate Republicans are already digging in before the negotiations formally begin.
President Joe Biden has made the semiconductor legislation a top priority, but he’ll need the support of 10 Senate Republicans, and perhaps more, to get a bill to his desk. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell emphasized that point when congressional leaders recently announced which lawmakers will serve on the committee that works to reconcile the two bills.
“Without major concessions and changes from House Democrats, this legislation has no chance of becoming law,” McConnell said.
House Democrats say their voices need to be heard during negotiations.
“We need to make sure that everyone has input,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group that has 19 members participating in negotiations. “We have a strong bill in the House, and I think there’s important components there that the Senate should also consider.”
The Senate bill is projected to increase spending by about $250 billion over 10 years. The House bill would boost spending by more than $400 billion over the period.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.