Comprehensive Science Legislation to Become Law

The lame-duck House of Representatives today accepted a stripped-down Senate version of the America COMPETES Act, a bill to strengthen research, education, and innovation at several federal agencies. Now the bill will go to the president for his signature. But looming fights over the discretionary budget may make the legislative success a Pyrrhic victory.

The sharply partisan nature of the debate on the House floor this afternoon—only 16 of 146 Republicans supported its passage, along with all 212 Democrats who voted—signaled that the new Republican House leadership won't take kindly to bills that promise large increases in federal spending, no matter how worthy the cause. That attitude bodes ill for the likely impact of COMPETES, which puts Congress on record in support of steady increases in the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the basic science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The bill also creates new programs aimed at enhancing science and math education, advanced manufacturing research, and regional innovation and mandates better coordination of them by the White House. And it tweaks the rules governing existing activities, from the fledgling Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at DOE to long-running training programs at NSF, with the goal of getting a bigger economic payoff from federal investments. (Look for more details in subsequent posts.)

COMPETES doesn't actually provide any money for any agency. That can has been kicked down the road into the next Congress because legislators couldn't agree on the 2011 budget in their current lame-duck session. But that didn't stop Republicans from railing against the increased "spending" authorized in the bill, which would allow up to $46 billion for those agencies over the next 3 years. And that's after the House accepted Senate changes that sliced the last 2 years off a 5-year authorization and dropped several new programs. Republicans also complained that the bill, which the full House passed in a different form in May and which was vetted by a Senate panel in July, was being crammed down their throats.

"Yes, the Senate has made it a $46 billion bill, saving $40 billion, ... but it still contains $7.4 billion in new spending," complained Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), the incoming chairman of the House science committee. "Now, under a closed rule, we are considering a bill with no opportunity to consider amendments. Last month the voters told us they wanted us to do things differently, and now we are taking up a $46 billion bill."

Although Hall has so far declined to discuss his priorities for the committee, he laid out his strategy for possibly revising the COMPETES bill in describing what he didn't like about it. "I can't support this version of the bill," Hall explained. "If it's defeated, I pledge to reintroduce the good, fiscally responsible pieces of this legislation, agency by agency, in the next Congress. This bill should be considered in smaller pieces."

Representative Vern Ehlers (R-MI), a former physicist who's retiring after 17 years in the House, was one of the few in his party who saw a silver lining in the COMPETES bill. It had to do with creating jobs by bolstering the nation's manufacturing sector.

"I know some do not like this bill. And I share some of those concerns," said Ehlers, whose background gave him the stature to play the role as impartial interpreter of science during his tenure in Congress. "But if we don't act, we are letting down the manufacturing sector. ... Michigan has to work hard to manufacture cars that will sell. And we won't compete successfully unless we invest more in research, which is used by manufacturers to develop new products and create jobs. I know the bill has shortcomings. But the Republicans are taking over in the House, and we can proceed to rewrite the bill the way we want it to be."

House Democrats weren't thrilled with what they were given by the Senate, either. Retiring Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), outgoing chairman of the House science committee, had spent 2 years crafting what he thought would be a bipartisan reauthorization bill, only to see it nearly fall apart as bipartisanship became an increasingly rare commodity in Congress. It was given up for dead when the Senate failed to act before the midterm elections. But last week the Senate adopted a 177-page amendment designed to remove objections raised by Republicans to what the House had passed.

"This bill preserves the intent of RAGS and original COMPETES," said Gordon, referring to the influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report from the National Academies in 2005. "It keeps agencies on a doubling path, continues to invest in energy technology, STEM education, and [promote the] spirit of innovation. It continues to be a bipartisan, bicameral effort. ... The business and academic and scientific communities ... have all urged us to pass this bill to support research, foster innovation, and improve education and create 21st century jobs. ... And I cannot think of anything I'd rather be doing in what is likely my last act after 26 years in Congress than to send this bill to the president."