White House-Backed TikTok Bill Is Toothless, China Hawks Say

Bill allows Biden admin to delay action on TikTok despite national security concerns

President Joe Biden takes a selfie at DNC headquarters / Getty Images
March 15, 2023

White House-backed legislation to "ban" TikTok is toothless and includes a loophole that will let the Biden administration avoid taking real action against the Chinese social media app, according to congressional China hawks pushing for more direct action.

The behind-the-scenes pushback from lawmakers could end up sinking the Senate bill, known as the RESTRICT Act, which would give the president new authorities to restrict social media applications run by foreign adversaries. But the bill does not make any specific mention of TikTok, and critics say the White House is backing the legislation precisely because it doesn't require the administration to ban the social media platform, which has been deemed a national security threat.

"Congress already has produced multiple bills that would finish what the Trump administration started and ban TikTok," Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) told the Washington Free Beacon. "The Biden administration is endorsing this half-measure to avoid confronting their biggest benefactors—China and Big Tech."

The bill does not include a ban on the TikTok app itself, but it allows the Commerce Department to identify and potentially prohibit any technology that "poses undue or unacceptable risk to national security." TikTok has lent its support to the bill, praising it for addressing "national security concerns" without "censoring millions of Americans" who use the app.

Amid allegations that China uses the app to spy on Americans and push Communist propaganda, Democrats have been hesitant to support an outright ban on the platform, which is popular with its progressive base and which Biden has used as a voter outreach tool. TikTok recently hired Democratic lobbying powerhouse SKDK, a firm with deep ties to the White House and Democratic Senate leadership. Anita Dunn, a founding partner of SKDK, is a senior adviser to Biden.

China hawks say the RESTRICT Act, drafted by Republican senator John Thune (S.D.) and Democratic senator Mark Warner (Va.), is well intentioned but includes a provision that would allow the Department of Commerce to delay action until the conclusion of a long-running national security review of TikTok, which is being conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) last week publicly came out against the RESTRICT Act, saying it "gives the illusion of action, but it's not action."

"I think [Warner's] intentions are good in terms of how he views the whole thing, but his bill will not ban TikTok," Rubio said. "I think that's what the White House wants. I think he's trying to offer a bill that the White House will be supportive of and that he thinks can get passed."

Experts warn that the bill could actually insulate TikTok from any concrete action.

"There's a risk that the Biden administration could use provisions within the Warner-Thune bill as justification for not touching TikTok, and further delaying action," said Michael Sobolik, a China expert with the American Foreign Policy Council. Sobolik points to the provision allowing for the conclusion of the national security review, which he says is "stuck" in government bureaucracy.

The Thune-Warner bill gives the Biden administration more leeway than other proposed TikTok legislation.

One bill, spearheaded by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas), would force the administration to make a decision on banning TikTok by a specific deadline, while another championed by Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) would institute an outright ban. Increased attention on these bills has reportedly forced TikTok's leadership to consider severing its American arm from Chinese Communist Party control.

Capitol Hill sources expressed concerns about the Thune-Warner bill, which they described as a TikTok ban in name only.

"The White House isn't fooling anyone," said one senior Republican aide.

Another senior Republican aide argued that the White House's track record on TikTok and China makes it hard to believe the administration will take action unless Congress forces it to do so.

"This is the same administration that invites TikTok influencers to the White House," said the aide. "It has shown no inclination to actually take action on TikTok."