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House Takes Pot Shots at Research and Ocean Policy

Budget cutter. Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) wants the National Science Foundation to stop funding political science research.

U.S. House of Representatives

The U.S. House of Representatives has decided that the country can't afford several federally funded research programs.

The list includes the entire political science portfolio at the National Science Foundation, as well as a $10-million NSF program on climate change education. The House would also pull the plug on the American Community Survey, a monthly questionnaire from the Census Bureau that has replaced the long form of the decennial census. And it voted to withhold funds from the Obama Administration's effort to implement a National Ocean Policy (NOP).

The moves were included in amendments to a bill approved today on a largely party-line, 247-to-163 vote that funds the commerce and justice departments as well as NSF, NASA, and other independent agencies.

The targeted programs comprise a tiny fraction of the $51 billion appropriated for 2013 in the so-called CJS bill (HR 5326), one of 12 appropriations measures that fund the entire U.S. government. But House Republicans say that they represent the type of duplicate and/or unnecessary spending that has led to a $1.5 trillion annual deficit and a $15 trillion federal debt.

One amendment, from Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), would "prohibit NSF from using taxpayer dollars to fund political science research." It passed by a vote of 218 to 208 after another Flake amendment, to trim $1.2 billion from NSF's overall $7 billion budget, failed after attracting just 121 votes. "Now, I hold a graduate degree in political science myself," Flake noted. "I agree that such research has its benefits. The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn't be minimized. But they shouldn't be subsidized by the National Science Foundation."

Speaking in NSF's defense, Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) said that Flake's amendment is an attack not only on political scientists but on academic research writ large. "I can see that you could probably bring a list of studies in front of the Congress from the National Science Foundation and get a laugh on any day," said Fattah. "But these studies are important. They're merit based. They're decided on merit only. I think that it may appear to be costly, $11 million out of a $7 billion funding for the National Science Foundation, but I think that however expensive an education may be, ignorance will probably cost our country more."

Representative Chip Cravaack (R-MN), whose amendment to cut into climate change education passed by a vote of 238 to 188, took a different tack. "This is about duplicative programs," he told his colleagues. "The National Science Foundation already funds STEM [science, technology, education, and mathematics] education and even climate-change education programs in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources with worthy peer-reviewed proposals. There is no need to fund additional special climate-change education programs."

Unspoken is the fact that climate change is a bête noire for conservatives, with the $2.5-billion-a-year U.S. Global Change Research Program a particular irritant. However, Cravaack's amendment affects only a small portion of NSF's activities relating to climate change.

In contrast, the attack on the American Community Survey would gut the Census Bureau's ability to collect current data on a range of statistical measures used by many federal agencies. That's exactly the point, said supporters of the amendment offered by Representative Daniel Webster (R-FL). After the House agreed on a voice vote to make ACS voluntary, Webster took the next step by proposing to cancel the $250-million-a-year effort, which he labeled "intrusive and unconstitutional."

Again, it was left to Fattah to make the case for the value of information. "The idea that we don't want to ask a couple hundred thousand citizens a question about something so that we can better plan for a country of 300 million," he said, "the idea that filling out a few pieces of paper is too much to be asked for your country to help create a better Union, I think citizens would welcome [that intervention]. In fact, the reason you don't have to fine anyone is because people do fill out the form."

Webster's view prevailed on a vote of 232 to 190.

The House also voted, by 246 to 174, to accept an amendment that would block implementation of ocean policy programs by forbidding federal agencies from spending money on any NOP-related activities. Representative Bill Flores (R-TX) introduced the amendment, which states that "none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement the National Ocean Policy developed under Executive Order 13547."

The "executive order creates a huge new bureaucracy at a time when we're trying to grow our economy," Flores said yesterday during debate over the amendment. He also voiced concern that NOP would open the door to potentially far-reaching federal regulation of inland activities, such as agriculture, that can affect the ocean. Other NOP critics have argued that it will siphon funds from other programs.

NOP supporters, however, disputed those claims. "The core approach of the National Ocean Policy is to improve stewardship of our oceans, coasts, islands, and Great Lakes by directing government agencies with differing mandates to coordinate and work better together," said Representative Norman Dicks (D-WA). "The National Ocean Policy creates no new authorities."

"There's a saying in Washington that if you're not at the table, you're on the menu," added Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), who opposed the amendment. "Fishing grounds, shipping lanes, Navy training ranges, offshore energy production, wildlife habitats, and other uses are increasingly in competition, and the National Ocean Policy will help ensure that everyone has a seat at the table."

The House vote came as the Administration is considering thousands of comments on its plan to implement NOP.

In other votes, the House rejected efforts to move about $5 million from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to a minority business program, and to cut $10 million from NASA's Mars program. It also agreed to increase funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's operations, research, and facilities account by $1.6 million. The overall bill drew a strong endorsement from the Association of American Universities, which applauded both the Administration's requested funding levels for the research agencies and the House's support for most of them.

It remains to be seen whether any of the amendments will make it into a final spending bill, which is not expected to be completed until late this year. White House officials have said they would recommend that President Barack Obama veto the House version, and the Senate has yet to finalize its bill.