America COMPETES Act Future Uncertain Due to Partisan Differences

May 21, 2010

The America COMPETES Act, which would re-authorize and issue policy guidance for the Nation Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives after partisan wrangling over certain aspects of the bill. Although the ideals represented in the bill—science funding, research directives, and STEM education—enjoy broad bipartisan support, Democrats and Republicans could not come to a consensus agreement on several key points. While Democrats full-heartedly endorsed the act (H.R. 5116), Republicans criticized the $85.6 billion bill for expanding the authorization period from three years to five years, the authorization of spending increases for the three agencies, the authorization of six new programs, for what they characterized as a shift from basic research and development to a focus on technology commercialization, and an increased emphasis on global warming.

After nearly two days of debate on the House floor in which both sides traded barbs and ideas, the measure was expected to pass due to the large 254-177 advantage that Democrats possess in the House. However, directly before the House was to vote on the measure, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the House Science Committee that had reported the bill rose and spoke, indicating that he had a “Motion to Recommit” pending. This legislative procedure allows a member of the House to request a vote to send the bill back to committee with instructions for amendment. After Rep. Hall spoke about his concerns with the bill, the motion to recommit passed the House by a vote of 292-126.

On Tuesday, May 18th, The Chairman of the House Science Committee, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) announced that he would move ahead with an entirely new bill, which would allow him to avoid having to adopt the “instructions” included as part of Hall’s motion. The new bill (H.R. 5325) is quite similar to the previous COMPETES Act, but includes a few key provisions that Republicans had been clamoring for: namely reducing the authorization period from five to three years and language from the Hall motion on disciplinary actions for federal employees caught viewing pornography at work. While Hall indicated that he did like the fact that the new bill included these provisions, he still expressed opposition to the large number of new programs authorized by the Act.

After a brief period of further discussion on the floor, the House moved to vote on the H.R. 5325 under “Suspension of the Rules,” an expedited procedure that requires two thirds of the members to vote yes for passage. On a vote of 261-148, the bill did not pass. All Democrats and 15 Republicans voted for the measure, but they fell short of the 289 votes needed for passage. Because of this, the future of the COMPETES Act remains uncertain, although all sources indicate that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer intends to bring the bill back to the House floor using standard procedures that would only require a simple majority for passage—a level of support which the bill appears to have, based on the previous vote.

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