Comity on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives reached a new low today.
Twenty-two minutes after the committee’s energy panel convened to start the process of debating and approving a bill to reauthorize the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) research and development programs, Representative Cynthia Lummis (R–WY) gaveled the session to a close without taking any votes on the proposed legislation. It was the latest—and most graphic—illustration of how partisan distrust has crippled the committee’s ability to do its job.
The subject at hand was the DOE Research and Development Act of 2014 to provide guidance to DOE’s sprawling research programs, which are the major source of funding for the U.S. physical sciences and energy studies. Its controversial provisions include sharp cuts to climate change research and restrictions on how findings from that research can be used to shape federal environmental policies. At the same time, it proposes a 5.1% spending increase next year for DOE’s Office of Science, well above the administration’s 0.8% request for 2015.
The bill is designed to be a follow-on to the now-expired America COMPETES Act, which set policy for an array of U.S. science agencies, including DOE and the National Science Foundation (NSF). But instead of tweaking COMPETES, which expired last year, the science committee’s Republican majority opted to write two separate bills: one covering DOE; and a second bill, known as FIRST (Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology), covering NSF and the other research agencies. Both are “authorizing” bills, which mean they can set policy and suggest spending levels, but don’t actually appropriate funding (authorized funding levels are often higher than what Congress actually approves).
Republicans have made no secret of their plans to do a separate energy reauthorization, which had been called the EINSTEIN (Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America) Act. But panel Democrats today complained that the final draft of the 102-page bill, which includes provisions from EINSTEIN, wasn’t actually circulated until late Friday. On Monday, the full committee announced Lummis’s subcommittee would “mark up” that draft today; such markups usually involve lawmakers offering and voting on proposed changes to the draft before sending it to the full committee.
Democrats immediately objected to what they considered inadequate notice, and at a closed meeting yesterday urged the majority to postpone the scheduled markup. When that request was denied, they came to today’s public session loaded for bear. The brief meeting was punctuated by a series of parliamentary maneuvers that allowed each side to claim victory—and resulted in a colossal defeat for the legislative process itself.
The markup, scheduled for noon, began at 12:11 p.m., and Representative Alan Grayson (D–FL) immediately complained that such a tardy start was a violation of House rules and should invalidate the proceeding. His point of order was ultimately rejected by a vote of 4 to 2. But it signaled what was to come.
In her opening statement, Lummis said the bill would foster innovation by boosting DOE’s science budget, set needed priorities by shifting money from redundant areas to those of greater national need, and reduce the country’s deficit by cutting DOE’s “bottom line” for R&D by $230 million. The bill, she said, would return the agency to a “common sense, sustainable path” and reverse the “unchecked” growth in alternative energy programs by the Obama administration.
The panel’s top Democrat, Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA), saw things quite differently. The bill, he said, would “decimate” the budget for renewable energy, “slash” funding for biological and environmental research, and apply “ideological considerations, not science,” to the type of research DOE could support. But he saved his strongest language for the process itself. “There are plenty of ways that you and I, Madam Chair, could have worked together in a thoughtful and deliberative way to create legislation that would lay out a bipartisan framework to secure our country’s energy future,” he stated. “[U]nfortunately, that is not how the Majority has chosen to proceed.”
After hearing additional criticism from the full committee’s ranking member, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), Lummis set the stage for debate on the bill by asking for unanimous consent to waive a required reading of the full text. Normally, such requests are approved unanimously. This time, however, Democrats withheld their approval, a move that could have tied up the subcommittee for hours as the clerk read aloud the long bill.
“I think we should use our time to discuss our differences,” Lummis pleaded. But Swalwell insisted that the bill deserved “to see the light of Congress.” In a drastic response to the Democratic ploy, Representative Randy Weber (R–TX) moved that the markup be adjourned, a motion that passed by a party line vote of 6 to 4. At 12:33 p.m. Lummis called it a day.
With that action, Democrats could claim success in obstructing what they labeled a “dysfunctional process” on a bill that they viewed as “a step backwards” for DOE research. But Lummis appeared unfazed. The bill, she noted, will now simply move on to the full committee without debate or action by the subcommittee, at a date to be determined.
*Clarification, 11 June, 3:24 p.m.: This story clarifies that the name of the bill is now the DOE Research and Development Act of 2014.