Congress moves against TikTok amid Biden administration ‘stalemate’
A growing number of lawmakers, including some prominent Democrats, are tired of waiting for the White House to take action on TikTok.
On Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner introduced legislation that would grant the Biden administration new powers to regulate the popular Chinese video-sharing platform and other foreign-owned apps — just the latest in a series of bills lawmakers in both parties are pushing to clamp down on what they see as a digital threat. And the Virginia Democrat did not mince words when asked why he decided to push forward with the bill now.
“I was frustrated that the White House hadn’t come up with a solution,” Warner said Wednesday on Capitol Hill, adding that his bill would grant the president “much broader, much more powerful” authorities to regulate TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance.
The new legislation — co-sponsored by eleven other lawmakers, including six Democrats — underscores rising bipartisan impatience with Biden’s efforts to contain TikTok and deal with broader digital threats from China. With the administration’s own national security review of TikTok, which is being conducted by the the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., bogged down by internal disagreement, the White House quickly voiced its support for Warner’s bill Tuesday. The move signaled to lawmakers that any near-term action may have to come from Congress.
“I am concerned that CFIUS has come to a stalemate situation,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the head Democrat on the House Select Committee on China, who has signed on to a separate bill to ban TikTok. “When you have a stalemate then you end up with the status quo, and the status quo is unacceptable.”
“Clearly it’s a fraught subject for evaluation,” added Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican sponsor of Warner’s bill, who said he hoped the “broad authorities” in the legislation would help the administration find a solution.
Those lawmakers and other policymakers worry the Chinese government could get its hands on TikTok’s massive amounts of user data — including from more than 100 million American users. It’s a widespread concern: Congress, the European Union and a handful of states have all moved to prohibit the use of TikTok on government devices.
In addition to Warner’s bill, Krishnamoorthi and his counterpart on the China Select Committee, Chair Mike Gallagher, have put forward a bill to ban the app outright. So has House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul. Negotiations continue between lawmakers on how to harmonize the bill as the legislative session continues.
The White House also recognizes the risk, directing CFIUS to restart a national security review of the app early in the administration, after the Trump administration’s efforts to force a sale of the app ran aground in court. But that review has dragged on without resolution after months of debate between Treasury department officials and representatives of various national security agencies.
The White House, which worked with Warner in drafting the bill, says that the CFIUS review of TikTok continues and declined to comment on any potential impasse. But a senior administration official also added that Warner’s legislation would help the administration evaluate TikTok and other foreign apps by “allowing us to take a comprehensive approach to these threats.”
It’s not just the CFIUS review that remains up in the air. The impasse has delayed a separate Biden executive order on foreign data collection planned for over a year, and the administration still has not finished a separate Commerce Department rule on information and communications technology.
Warner and his co-sponsors hope their legislation can help nudge the administration ahead on multiple fronts. The bill would give the Commerce Department new authority and processes to evaluate the national security risks of TikTok and other foreign-made apps and products. It’s designed to override a section of U.S. law, known as the Berman amendments, that previously derailed the Trump administration’s efforts to ban the app.
“Regardless of what happens with TikTok, we need this stronger tool to go after foreign technology,” Warner said.
But some Republican China hawks remain skeptical. Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said he opposed Warner’s bill because it only gave the administration new authority to regulate TikTok, rather than mandating an outright ban. He has signed on to Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi’s bill to prohibit the app in the U.S.
“I don’t think the White House wants to do anything” about TikTok, said Rubio. “I support a ban.”