Senate, House panels OK bills to tighten foreign investment oversight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Committees in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to approve bills aimed at tightening oversight of foreign investment to slow China’s acquisition of sensitive U.S. technology.

The Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee approved laws that would strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews potential foreign investment to ensure it does not compromise national security.

The two chambers began the process in November with identical bills to expand the clout of the inter-agency body.

Congress is considering the bills to address Defense Department concerns that U.S. soldiers could some day face on a battlefield U.S. technology like robotics or drones that was acquired by foreign adversaries.

The Senate committee approved removing from the bill a section that would require CFIUS to review joint ventures that could lead to technology transfer, a process that would delay transactions. The approved bill also defines passive investments, which CFIUS normally considers approvable.

The House Financial Services Committee unanimously passed its version later on Tuesday, according to a statement by its sponsor, Republican Representative Robert Pittenger.

Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and lead sponsor of the legislation, told reporters it would be “ideal” to attach CFIUS to the defense authorization bill or some other “must-pass” legislation.

“What we need to do is elevate everybody’s understanding of what China’s strategic long-term goals are, and they are to dominate the United States economically and militarily,” said Cornyn. “They’ve got a very clear strategy for doing that, and we need to wake up to that and make sure we’re responding in kind.”

The Senate Banking Committee voted to tack onto the bill a measure that would make it more difficult for the president to modify penalties on Chinese telecommunications companies such as ZTE Corp 000063.SZ.

U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that President Donald Trump would ease tough penalties on ZTE, saying the United States should not bow to pressure from Beijing to help the smartphone maker.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Eric Walsh; Editing by Richard Chang and Cynthia Osterman