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Lamar Smith and Eddie Bernice Johnson

Chair Representative Lamar Smith (right) and ranking member Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (left) at a 2013 hearing of the science committee

U.S. House of Representatives science committee

Smith makes small concession in markup of COMPETES bill

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) took a small, tactical step back today from his assault on the policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF). But Smith hasn’t abandoned his 2-year strategy of pushing NSF in directions that the U.S. scientific community doesn’t want it to go. And in marking up his America COMPETES Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1806) before the science committee that he chairs, he made it clear that he’s calling the shots.

(The rest of this story is based on the first few hours of today’s markup of the bill, which covers NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the science programs at the Department of Energy, and federal science education policy. The markup continued well into the afternoon; see the update below on the final bill's approval.)

The committee spent most of the morning rejecting a slew of Democratic amendments aimed at reversing proposed cuts to research programs and removing language seen as an attack on NSF’s vaunted peer-review process. Smith’s big concession was to drop language in the bill about how NSF builds and manages large scientific facilities that NSF officials say is unreasonable, unnecessary, and in places even contradictory.

In particular, the language would have required NSF to “correct” any problems identified by an independent audit of projected costs before starting construction. It would also require NSF to apply rules on how project contingency funds can be spent that are at odds with existing federal policies. That language could seriously delay new projects and drive up costs, according to agency officials, who say they conveyed their concerns to the committee after the bill was unveiled last week.

Smith apparently took the complaints to heart. In the first of almost three dozen amendments put before the committee, he proposed removing the offending paragraphs and leaving only the requirement that NSF report back to Congress on any procedural changes it makes based on a study now under way. The changes were adopted unanimously by voice vote.

Going overboard?

The only other concession that Smith made during the hearing was to put back $500,000 he had removed from the $4.3 million budget of the National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight body.

The 12% cut in NSF’s smallest account—the agency’s total budget this year is $7.3 billion—came from seemingly nowhere. The rest of the COMPETES bill would severely lower authorized funding levels for the social and behavioral sciences, geosciences, and international activities at NSF—cuts that are in line with the committee’s ideological stance that they play small roles in fostering innovation, bolstering the U.S. economy, and defending the nation against attack. But the cut to the science board’s budget seemed like an outlier.

Smith offered no explanation at the hearing as to why the board’s funding was restored. There is speculation, however, that the cut was retaliation for comments by board chair Dan Arvizu during a February hearing before the committee on NSF’s 2016 budget. At that hearing, NSF Director France Córdova indicated her support for one of Smith’s most contentious moves—requiring the agency to certify that each research grant has the potential to contribute to the national interest. But Arvizu declined to go along, saying he needed to read the exact language in the bill, which had not yet been released.

To compensate for the plus-up, Smith’s amendment cuts $500,000 from the budget for NSF’s inspector general, the agency’s internal but independent watchdog. While that swap is consistent with Smith’s insistence on holding down overall spending levels in the bill, it’s also somewhat ironic. The inspector general has been the leading critic of NSF’s management of large projects, telling Smith’s committee repeatedly about costs it cannot verify and urging NSF to improve its practices. A recent damning report about the questionable use of contractor management fees triggered some of the controversial language in the COMPETES bill.

“Why are we here?”

The bulk of the committee’s time this morning was spent in debate over a series of proposals introduced by Democrats to correct what they view as a very flawed bill, including one that would substitute their own version. The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), presaged those debates in her opening remarks by calling the bill the result of combining “two bad bills from last year … into one, doubly bad, bill.” Johnson said she was “embarrassed” by what was happening and pointedly asked Smith: “If the very scientists and engineers you wrote this bill for want nothing to do with it, why are we even here today?”

Knowing he had the votes to reject every Democratic suggestion, Smith chose several freshmen on the committee to speak against individual amendments that would have modified the bill. But a few times Smith made the case himself—in particular, defending his decision to set funding levels for each of NSF’s seven research directorates and to alter NSF’s approach to grantsmaking. His choice seemed to reflect the importance he attached to some of the most controversial elements in the bill.

*Update, 22 April, 5:55 p.m.:

After two recesses, the committee finished grinding through all the amendments, including a dozen roll call votes, a parliamentary maneuver by Democrats to put all members on record. Nearly all were defeated by three-vote margins, reflecting the partisan division of the members attending the markup. The final bill was approved by a margin of 19 to 16, allowing Smith to gavel the session to a close at 5:45 p.m., some 7.5 hours after it began.

The bill’s next stop is the House floor, at a time to be determined. There is no Senate version, although the chair of the equivalent Senate panel, Senator John Thune (R–SD), this morning issued a joint statement with Smith professing to “share” Smith’s goal of getting Congress to pass legislation reauthorizing programs at those agencies.