Washington, D.C. — The Senate voted Wednesday, July 12 to ease export controls on high-performance computers despite concerns U.S. technology could be used against America by its enemies.
On a vote of 86-11, the Senate adopted an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would decrease to 60 days the 180 days Congress has to review changes in administration export rules on such computers.
In offering the amendment, Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, said the shorter time is needed to help American high-tech companies keep their competitive advantage in the global market.
“Today’s vote is a big victory for the U.S. high technology industry and for the jobs and economic growth that this important industry has generated,” said Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
The measure had been endorsed by the Information Technology Industry Council, the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports and the United States Chamber of Commerce.
But Sen. Fred Thompson said he was concerned about the effect an easing could have on national security. “The Chinese … are using our technology,” he said. “They are specifically using our high-performance computers to enhance their own nuclear capabilities. Potentially, they will be used against our own country.”
Supporters of the easing say current controls are ineffective because they are much stricter than those of foreign competitors.
Under a 1998 law, American exporters of high-performance computers (those running at 2,000 million theoretical operations per second) have been subjected to a six-month review period to protect American technological secrets. While well-intentioned, that provision no longer makes sense because some products can become obsolete during the six months, supporters of the measure contended.
“The current export-control system interferes with legitimate United States exports because it does not keep pace with the high rate of innovation in the microprocessor market,” said Reid, who co-sponsored the measure with Senator Bennett.
Reid said the 180-day restriction was allowing foreign computer companies to supplant American computers in overseas markets because of the “burdensome and discriminatory waiting period.”
Bennett said he would have preferred cutting the review period to 30 days but would go along with the 60-day wait approved earlier by the House so that the change could be enacted sooner. The defense bill embodying the change is expected to be voted on by the Senate before the weekend.
The deputy White House press secretary, Jake Siewert, said the Administration had also pressed for a 30-day period but was pleased by the vote. “Sixty is better than 180,” he said.
The Senate last March put aside legislation to create a new process for determining what items with dual commercial and military uses would come under export controls.
The basic export law has not been renewed since 1994, and since then President Clinton has had to grant export waivers on a case-by-case basis. Since 1993, Clinton has revised control requirements for high-performance computers four times, the latest in January.