House Science Committee Approves NSF and NIST Bill on Party Line Vote

Publication date

Yesterday evening the full House Science, Space, and Technology Committee resumed its consideration of the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. After a series of party line roll call votes on various amendments the committee approved the bill and sent it to the full House. 

The committee started its work on this bill last year that is intended to set funding targets and policy for the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  From the first day that the Republican’s Discussion Draft of the bill was released it attracted much attention and considerable opposition.  Although there were disagreements about provisions in similar authorization bills, the first of which was passed in 2007, the FIRST bill is notable for the high-profile attention it drew for controversial sections regarding the National Science Foundation’s grant-making process and the authorization level for the Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Directorate.

Support for the original COMPETES Act, which was the foundation for the FIRST bill, was strongly bipartisan.  An 2007 issue of FYI describing its enactment referred to then Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) as follows: “Chairman Gordon noted that this was not a Republican or Democratic bill nor a House or a Senate bill, [Gordon] later saying, ‘Securing a brighter future for our children is simply not a partisan issue . . . this is truly a team effort.’"   A major component of the COMPETES bill, signed by President George W. Bush, were provisions targeting a doubling of funding for NSF, NIST, and the DOE Office of Science. In 2010 the Science Committee developed a bill to reauthorize the COMPETES bill.  Gordon was still the chairman, and his 222-page bill attracted 60 amendments.  Many amendments passed by voice vote and were intended to refine legislative language on various programs such as renovation of academic facilities and STEM education.  Other amendments to reduce authorization levels were offered by Republican members concerned about the federal budget deficit.  After working an entire day on the bill it was passed by the committee by a vote of 29 yes to 8 no votes.  All votes against the bill were cast by Republicans; five Republicans joined all of the committee’s Democrats in voting for it.  Four of the Republicans who voted for this bill are no longer in Congress.  The bill was eventually passed by the House in May 2010 after much legislative maneuvering. 

The Science Committee began its mark up of H.R. 4186, the FIRST Act, on May 21.  It soon became obvious that any behind-the-scenes negotiations to develop a compromise on controversial sections of this bill, like that which had been successfully attained just a month ago for the once-troubled NASA authorization bill, was not to be.   In his opening remarks Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) emphasized the FIRST bill’s focus on “basic research in the critical areas of physical science and engineering,” which “drive future economic growth.”  Smith spoke of the bill’s “requirement that the NSF, for the first time, meet minimum standards of public accountability and transparency in its grant funding decisions” that will require the agency “to publish a justification of each grant’s scientific merits and relevance to broad national interest.”  Ranking Member Eddie Bernice John (D-TX) described the bill as “an opportunity lost,” criticizing it for being “preoccupied with questioning the motives of America’s premiere science agency and the integrity of the scientists it funds. Where the Competes Act focused on broadly lifting America’s commitment to the sciences, the FIRST Act instead seeks to pit different scientific disciplines against one another.”  Johnson was referring to the significant reduction in the bill’s authorization level for the SBE Directorate.

Committee members had 28 amendments to consider to the 134-page bill establishing spending levels and policy for FY 2014 (the current year) and FY 2015 for the NSF and NIST. In contrast to previous legislation, the FIRST bill did not include the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  The bill authorizes NSF at an FY 2015 level slightly higher than the Obama Administration requested and a NIST level less than the Administration’s request.  Some of the amendments pertaining to NSF would have removed the specific authorization levels for NSF directorates while others would have increased the foundation’s overall authorization level for FY 2015.  Other amendments dealt with the foundation’s grant making process. 

Roll call votes were requested on many of these amendments at the May 21 session which the committee took when it reconvened at 5:00 PM yesterday.  Several amendments were withdrawn and others passed by voice vote.  Roll call votes were held on more controversial amendments offered by Democratic members and all were rejected on very strong party-line votes.  The bill passed by a vote of 20-16, again on a strictly party-line vote.  The committee’s record of this final vote on the bill’s language, the Smith/Bucshon amendment 013, Roll Call No. 15, is available here at the end of the list. 

The press releases issued by the committee’s Republican and Democratic staff highlight the different perspectives on yesterday’s outcome:

Republican: “Committee Approves FIRST Act to Prioritize NSF Research in the National Interest”

Democratic: “Committee Democrats Oppose FIRST Act”

The schedule for the consideration of this bill by the full House is unknown, as is the schedule for Senate action.