House Consideration of COMPETES Bill Highlights Party Differences

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Publication date: 
20 May 2010

It was widely anticipated that the House of Representatives would pass a reauthorization bill for the America COMPETES Act on May 13.  A week has passed, and the legislation has not moved off the House floor following two unsuccessful votes on its passage.  Differences between House Democrats and Republicans have stalled this bill which includes policy guidance and authorization levels for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

One of the major points of contention preventing passage of the bill is whether funding for the three agencies should be frozen at current levels.  The original COMPETES legislation passed in 2007 put the three agencies on an eventual budget doubling track for three years.  The House Science and Technology Committee brought a reauthorization of this bill to the House floor on May 12 that authorized funding increases to keep these agencies on a doubling track for the next five years.  The 222-page bill is wide-ranging, setting spending levels for the three agencies, authorizing new programs and setting policy in a number of areas.

When H.R. 5116 came to the floor 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.  Many of these issues were raised when the Science Committee marked up the bill on April 29, passing it by a vote of 22-8, with five Republicans voting for it.

Several votes during this markup indicated the position that members would take when the bill came to the House floor.  One unsuccessful amendment offered at the markup to reduce the authorization period from five to three years was supported by all but two voting Republicans.  Another unsuccessful amendment would have frozen authorization levels at the FY 2010 level and was supported by all but one voting Republican.  A third amendment to strike the new programs or agencies failed along largely party lines.  None of these amendments was supported by any of the committee’s voting Democrats.

The expectation was for the full House’s consideration of H.R. 5116 to largely follow the earlier committee markup, with passage of the bill predicted because of the 254 - 177 party division in the House between Democrats and Republicans.  After debate stretching over two days, the House moved toward a vote.  At that point Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the Ranking Minority Member of the Science Committee rose and said “Mr. Speaker, I have a motion to recommit at the desk.”This legislative procedure allows a Member to ask for a vote to send a bill back to the originating committee with instructions on how it should be amended.  Hall described his motion as follows:

“The motion to recommit addresses the biggest concern I, and many of the [Republican] Members on this side of the aisle, have with the legislation, which is the excessive spending. It will address this issue by reducing the authorization to three years instead of five, striking the new programs in the bill, and reducing the spending down to the fiscal year 2010 appropriated levels. It also would prohibit Federal funds from being used by Federal employees to view, download, or exchange pornography, including child pornography. Additionally, it will ensure that the institutions that we're giving Federal funding to through this act will repay the Federal Government by allowing the military onto their campuses for recruitment.  Finally, the motion to recommit will invest in an issue that’s very dear to our hearts, our Nation’s disabled veterans. This motion would ensure that our colleges and universities that make STEM programs available to our disabled veterans and those schools chartered to serve disabled veterans receive the same special consideration afforded to other schools serving the underrepresented populations.  A much broader version of this language was unanimously accepted at the [Science] committee level. A very watered down version that does not stand the chance of helping a single veteran is included in the manager's amendment [the version the House was now considering].”

One provision of this motion was more fully described by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) as follows:

“Mr. Speaker, this motion to recommit is concerning to me, and I encourage a ‘yes’ vote.  I would just like to highlight one provision because there has been a great deal of press lately about the misuse of government computers and the waste of time and taxpayer dollars by Federal employees at the Securities and Exchange Commission who are spending as much as eight hours a day viewing pornography on government computers. However, this problem is not limited just to the SEC. The Inspector General at the National Science Foundation, which is authorized by this Act, found similar problems there. So what happened to these employees? According to the Inspector General, and I quote, NSF issued a formal proposal followed by a decision suspending them for 10 calendar days without pay. Ten days’ suspension, unacceptable. Taxpayers deserve better.   This motion to recommit is simple. If you're a government employee, and you are disciplined for viewing, downloading, or e-mailing pornography, including child pornography, on government computers or during work hours, you will no longer be paid. You will be fired. If you think a couple of days of suspension, a reprimand, a transfer is the right response when someone uses government computers to spread pornography, then vote against this motion. But if you think spreading pornography with a government computer is an act that should lead to dismissal, then vote for this motion. I urge a vote for this motion.”

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) rose to summarize “why this is an important and a good bipartisan bill,” and then said:

“Now let's get down to the heart of it. And quite frankly, it saddens me to have to go into this. I mean, it saddens me that when we look at our kids--I have a 9-year-old daughter, and what about her future? What about your family’s future? Oh, we're going to hide behind this little bit. We're going to gut this bill for this little bit. A few days ago there were some NSF employees who were patching pornography. Of course that was bad, and they were disciplined. Throughout the whole executive offices, there is filtering on that now. Nobody seriously thinks that we don't want to deal with pornography here. For God’s sake. And when it gets to the conference, we'll take care of that even more.  Everybody raise your hand that’s for pornography. Come on, raise your hand.  Nobody? Nobody is for pornography? Well, I'm shocked. So I guess we need this little bitty provision that means nothing; that's going to gut the entire bill. This is an embarrassment, and if you vote for this, you should be embarrassed.”

With that, the House voted on Hall’s motion to recommit the bill back to the Science Committee with instructions to include the new amendments.  The House voted to do so by 292 yes to 126 no votes.

On Tuesday, the Science Committee announced that Chairman Gordon was going to be reintroducing a new bill.  By using a new bill number it allowed him to avoid the strict “instructions” in Hall’s motion.  The new bill, H.R. 5325, was similar to H.R. 5116 with two exceptions: it included the amendment’s language in the Hall motion on federal agency employees viewing pornography at work, and reduced the authorization period from five years to three years.  When the new bill came to the House floor, Gordon explained:

“I understand the concerns of many of my colleagues about the overall size of a 5-year authorization, and this reduction is my sincere attempt to compromise on an issue that is very important to me and our country. The bill before us today includes an overall funding reduction of 50 percent from H.R. 5116, as introduced.”

Hall responded:

“While I remain committed to the underlying goals of the America COMPETES Act, the bill before us today continues to take us in a much more costly direction and authorizes a number  of new programs which have little to do with prioritizing investments in basic science, technology, engineering, and math research and development.”

Hall criticized the way that the first bill had been considered on the House floor and expressed disappointment that it had been pulled from further consideration.   Explaining he was pleased that Gordon’s new version reduced the authorized length from five years to three years and the inclusion of a pornography provision, he expressed his opposition to the authorization of new programs, a provision regarding a university reporting requirement, and language regarding disabled veterans.  Regarding funding, Hall also stated:

“Keeping the language in the bill would reduce authorization levels in the bill by $1.3 billion. The Republican motion to recommit kept all existing programs at fiscal year 2010 appropriated     levels. Given that our Nation’s debt is currently $13 trillion and our Nation’s budget deficit has increased 50 percent in three years, it’s prudent to put the brakes on significant increases in spending for years to come.”

Gordon later responded:

“Let me make this suggestion: if you want to wait for the absolutely perfect bill that you agree with every word, then you shouldn’t vote for this bill because this bill is a bipartisan compromise     that was a result of 49 hearings, four bipartisan markups, and so we had to work together. So if you want the perfect bill that is just exactly what you want regardless of what anybody else might want, then this may not be your bill.  But if you want a bill that is going to take America forward, if you want a bill that is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by the National     Association of Manufacturers, by the Information Technology Industry Association, by the Aerospace Industry Association, by the Business Roundtable, by the Council on Competitiveness, by the National Venture Capitalists Association, by TechAmerica, by TechNet, by Technological CEO Council, by the Telecommunication Industry Association, by the Energy Sciences Coalition,     by the Biotech Industry Organization, by the American Council of Education, by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, by the Association of American Universities, by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and on, and on, and on, and on, then this is the bill for you.”

Following further discussion, the House voted on the revised bill.  Under the expedited procedure in which the bill was brought to the floor, two-thirds of all voting Members had to approve its passage.  The bill did not pass on a vote of 261 yes votes to 148 no votes.  All voting Democrats voted for the bill, as did 15 Republicans.  All 148 no votes were cast by Republican members.

According to a published report and other information, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) will bring this bill back to the House floor using a procedure that will only require a simple majority for its passage.

The telephone number for the U.S. House of Representatives is 202-224-3121.

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