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Politics & Policy

How Congressional Dems and the Admin Stalled Uyghur-Forced Labor Bill

House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021 (Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters)

Senator Marco Rubio’s stand against Democratic stonewalling of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act last week put the issue prominently on the agenda. The scuffle — which I wrote about here and which NR’s editors weighed in on here — exposed how congressional Democratic leadership is blocking action on Uyghur slavery by hiding behind dubious procedural complaints.

To recap, Rubio wanted to insert the bill into the National Defense Authorization Act, but House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer objected, arguing that it has an impact on spending and revenues — therefore violating the House’s constitutional prerogative to be the sole source of revenue bills.

But it’s more likely that they’re acting on behalf of the administration to stonewall legislation that complicates White House efforts to seek common ground with China, considering that the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin revealed that deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman lobbied against the Uyghur forced-labor bill.

In response to criticism of Democrats’ refusal to include it in the NDAA, Pelosi feinted, allowing Representative Jim McGovern to bring his own version of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to the House floor this week. But that legislation is a red herring: Congress is getting no closer to enacting stricter curbs on importing slave-labor goods.

For one, if Rubio’s bill had made it into the NDAA — which is well on its way to the president’s desk, without the Uyghur forced-labor amendment — the legislation would have become law by the end of this year. The House passed the NDAA last night, and the Senate is expected to take it up soon.

McGovern is introducing an entirely new, separate bill. Congress voted on it in a previous session, but the House and Senate must each pass it again. That’s going to take more time — and it could well be held up again by Pelosi and Schumer. Pelosi has already neglected to bring to a vote legislation approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April, making for an inexplicable seven-month delay.

There’s a problem with McGovern’s proposal as well. The Massachusetts Democrat has a commendable record as an advocate of human rights in China, but his legislation overlooks the issue of forced-labor transfer programs. Essentially, Uyghur slavery isn’t contained to Xinjiang; the Chinese party-state helps transfer victims of these forced-labor practices to work in factories across China. According to analysis by Michael Sobolik of the American Foreign Policy Council, Rubio’s bill addresses this, but McGovern’s applies solely to forced-labor-produced goods from Xinjiang.

It’s going to take longer to pass the McGovern version than it would have to have passed the Rubio version via the NDAA — and the former is weaker than the latter, contrary to what Pelosi claimed during a press conference last week.

Meanwhile, Sherman, in response to questions about Rogin’s scoop, has said twice over the past week that the administration “does not oppose” the Uyghur forced-labor amendment.  The second time she said this, during a webinar event yesterday, the Financial Times‘s Demetri Sevatopolou picked up on her careful phrasing, and asked if the administration supports the legislation. Revealingly, Sherman doubled down on the “don’t oppose” formulation, declining to say that the administration supports the bill. While that’s not surprising, it is revealing that the State Department, which explicitly determined that forced labor in Xinjiang is a Chinese Communist Party–perpetrated crime against humanity, refuses to endorse legislation the combat these abuses.

Technically, the administration is not asking lawmakers to vote against passage of the bill — but it is opposing the bill by asking lawmakers to slow-walk and water it down.

Some of those lawmakers are obliging, which is why the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act does not seem set to become law anytime soon.


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