Hill fight stymies drive to monitor Chinese money in U.S. universities

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A backroom fight on Capitol Hill over increased government scrutiny of Chinese gifts to U.S. universities took a fresh twist Wednesday, with a key Republican pushing anew to give a key executive branch panel greater enforcement powers to examine the issue to crack down on abuses.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is said to be determined to expand the reach of the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) in the U.S.  Innovation and Competition Act currently before the Senate.

The overall bill is designed to boost the U.S. response to China’s rising economic might and competitive challenge. But despite mounting concern over Beijing’s overt and covert financial influence over U.S. academia, the Risch proposal has run into headwinds in the Senate debate.

Staffers for Mr. Risch of Idaho began circulating an amendment to the bill on Wednesday afternoon that would “ensure that [CFIUS] can review certain foreign gifts and contracts from the People’s Republic of China to institutions of higher education in the United States.”

A source speaking on condition of anonymity with The Washington Times said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, as well as Sens. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat have agreed to co-sponsor.

But it was unclear Wednesday whether the amendment will get a vote on the Senate floor.

Also unclear is whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer may simply incorporate the provision into the bill, which the New York Democrat unveiled last week as a renamed version of what had been the Endless Frontier Act.

The murky Senate debate over the CFIUS provision has raised questions over the extent to which U.S. universities or pro-China lobbying forces may be trying to block efforts to make the federal government more closely track money being channeled into U.S. colleges and universities by Chinese donors.

There is bipartisan concern Beijing has used donations and grant funding as a way to curb U.S. university research and programs critical of China’s authoritarian communist government. A 1986 U.S. law requires U.S. universities to disclose gifts and contracts of $250,000 or more from foreign sources, but there are signs the law goes unenforced.

A scathing report by the Trump administration Department of Education last year concluded that top U.S. universities have “massively underreported” billions of dollars in funding they have accepted from a range of foreign sources, including from China, Russia and other nations described as “adversaries,” the Associated Press reported.

The findings were based on investigations at a dozen top U.S. schools, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Most admitted to having also had financial dealings with Huawei, the Chinese tech giant that some U.S. officials say is a threat to national security, and at least one had ties directly to the Chinese Communist Party. Others had deals with the Russian government and institutions in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Mr. Risch has been joined by others on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, in unanimously backing a bill that would require CFIUS review of all such gifts totaling $1 million or more to any university inside the United States.

The bill was subsequently included in Mr. Schumer’s renamed bill last week. But in a mysterious twist, the Schumer bill also included separate language that said CFIUS “may not review or investigate a gift to an institution of higher education from a foreign person.”

A report by Axios last week cited three sources with knowledge of the situation as saying the change in language was the result of a dispute between the Foreign Relations and Senate Banking committees. CFIUS falls under the banking panel’s purview, and sources said Sens. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, and Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, the Banking Committee’s top members, felt they weren’t adequately consulted.

A source who spoke with The Washington Times, meanwhile, said it still wasn’t clear where the contradictory language came from, suggesting that it was “stuffed into the bill without a vote” that Mr. Schumer is now circulating.

“Territorial disputes are common on Capitol Hill, but they should not keep us from moving ahead on critical policy issues,” said the source. “In this case, it’s a weak argument and one that doesn’t hold up against what needs to be done, which is to safeguard our academic institutions against foreign malign influence.”

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