Third Time's a Charm for COMPETES Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation today that endorses healthy spending increases for three federal research agencies. The Democrats—and a handful of Republicans--who backed the bills had twice before this month been thwarted by legislative roadblocks. But this time they won—and successfully deployed their own rarely used maneuver to regain some of the territory they had ceded to opponents.

By a vote of 262 to 150, legislators authorized $84 billion for research, education, and innovation programs over the next 5 years at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (HR 5116). The bill is a comprehensive overhaul of 2007 legislation aimed at a 10-year budget doubling for those agencies. Ironically, that idea was first proposed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and embraced by the Obama Administration, but in recent months, knocking the plan has become a way for House Republicans to label Democrats as reckless big spenders.

Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee that crafted the bill, had failed in his first attempt at passage on 13 May when opponents added an antipornography provision that forced the bill off the floor and back onto the House calendar. An attempt last week to pass it under a suspension of the rules fell 15 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority that was needed. That version shrank the length of the reauthorization from 5 years to 3 years, making it easier for some deficit hawks to support it.

Realizing that he had enough votes to win passage, Gordon restored the 5-year scope in the version that returned to the floor today under normal rules. And to force his opponents to go on the record, he broke the 248-page bill into nine pieces and called for votes on each provision. (The report language runs to another 1233 pages and is available (pdf).) The antipornography language passed unanimously, and members also overwhelmingly supported an existing prohibition on federal funds going to any university that prohibits military recruiters on campus. The rest of the elements were defeated; the closest margin was a vote of 197 to 215 to give an inside track on education grants to institutions serving disabled veterans.

"As I've said before, this bill is too important to let fall by the wayside," Gordon declared after the vote. "Today, we took the action necessary to see consideration of this bill completed. And we allowed the Members of the House to be on record voting on provisions gutting funding for our science agencies, voting on whether we should eliminate programs that will help create jobs, voting on whether to eliminate programs that will make us more energy independent, voting in opposition to federal employees watching pornography, and voting on whether universities that ban military recruiters should receive federal research dollars. We have provided all Members, in a reasonable manner, with the ability to vote on each of these items separately instead of all together."

Predictably, that tactic outraged the Republican minority. "I am disappointed that my Democratic colleagues resorted to using a procedural tactic to defeat Republican changes that would have saved over $40 billion and restored the original COMPETES priority of basic research," said Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R–TX), who was particularly aggrieved by the defeat of the veterans' provision. "While I am glad we were finally able to reauthorize many of the important research and education program in this bill, the bill that passed today spends too much money, authorizes duplicative programs, and shifts focus away from the bill's original intent."

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has its own views on what's necessary to preserve the country's competitive edge. Then the two bills must be reconciled, a process that will give House opponents another chance to be heard.

*This article has been corrected. It originally stated that two Department of Commerce agencies, including NOAA, would be covered by the bill. Only one, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, will be covered.