Along Party Lines: House Science Committee Passes COMPETES Reauthorization Bill

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Last week’s approval by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee of a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act was fully expected.  Expected too – with only minor exception – were the straight party line recorded votes on unsuccessful amendments to the bill and its final passage sending it to the House floor.

The titles of the press releases issued on April 22 indicate the divergent perspectives of the committee’s Republicans and Democrats.  “Committee Approves Bill to Promote U.S. Scientific Leadership” said the Majority’s release, contrasting with that of the Minority “Republicans Pass Partisan America COMPETES amidst Strong Democratic Opposition.”

H.R. 1806 follows action the Science Committee took in 2014 and 2015 on authorization bills for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.  There was considerable controversy surrounding provisions of these earlier bills, most notably regarding NSF’s grant making process.  None of the bills advanced to the House floor, dying when the last Congress adjourned in early January.

While some of these controversial provisions were revised in H.R. 1806 concern remained strong.  During the hearing 32 letters were submitted for the record describing these concerns, including one from the American Institute of Physics and several of its Member Societies: the American Association of Physics Teachers; AVS: Science & Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing; and The Optical Society.  A separate letter from the American Physical Society expressed opposition to the legislation in its current form.   

The 189-page bill is expansive, with 102 sections setting funding limits and policy for NSF, NIST, some programs of the Department of Energy, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and STEM education.  The spending limits – or authorization levels – apply to FY 2016 and FY 2017.  Throughout the hours-long markup session the Democratic members offered more than 20 amendments, of which three were accepted by voice vote.  All but one of the other amendments were defeated, most by roll call votes that were almost always cast by party line.  The tenor of the markup was amicable, but the differences were obvious between the 22 Republican and 17 Democratic committee members.

The opening statements of the two senior Members of the Committee made clear these differences.  Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) described H.R. 1806 as “a pro-science, fiscally responsible bill.  . . . . This bill prioritizes basic research with targeted investments while staying within the cap set in law by the Budget Control Act for Fiscal Year 2016.”  He noted the bill’s authorization of a more than 4 percent increase in NSF’s Research and Related Activities budget that prioritizes funding for several directorates, including Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and Engineering.  “The bill also ensures accountability by restoring the original intent of the 1950 NSF enabling legislation, which requires the Foundation to recognize and adhere to scientific merit and a ‘national interest’ certification for each grant,” he said. Smith described an authorization increase in a NIST research budget and more than a 5 percent increase over the current budget for the DOE Office of Science.  “In sum, the reprioritization of basic research and fundamental scientific discovery in the physical sciences and biology and the accompanying reforms of federal science policy in H.R. 1806 will help ensure future U.S. economic competitiveness and security.   And it will spur private sector technological innovation,” Smith concluded.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) responded: “The COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 focused on reinforcing America’s commitment to the sciences across the board.  In contrast, H.R. 1806 seeks to pit different scientific disciplines against one another and to prevent research in fields to which the Majority is ideologically opposed.  The COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 sought to provide sustainable increases for R and D. In contrast, H.R. 1806 would flat fund R&D overall and impose severe cuts in certain fields.  The COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 sought to attract a new generation of STEM researchers across all fields. In contrast, H.R. 1806 would direct funding cuts and policies that will discourage an entire generation of American students and researchers.”   Johnson concluded, “I would like more than anything to be able to support a bipartisan reauthorization of the COMPETES Act. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have before us today, and I can’t support a bill that violates every one of the basic principles that underlay the original COMPETES Act.”

A major criticism of H.R. 1806 is how it sets authorization levels for NSF directorates within the Research and Related Activities account.  This is contrary to previous authorizations, since 1999, with a single number for the account.  The bill’s treatment of directorates varies, with some receiving increases while others, such as Geosciences and the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences directorates having their authorized funding levels significantly reduced.  The bill’s provisions regarding the merit review system, facility management, and scientific misconduct, among others, were also criticized and would have been revised or eliminated by amendments that failed to pass.  In the DOE portion of the bill, authorized funding for the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research Program was reduced, as was funding for ARPA-E and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. There was considerable DOE policy language that drew criticism but remained unchanged following unsuccessful amendments. 

The markup session that began a little after 10:00 AM concluded after 5:30 PM with a final vote on the bill.  The bill was approved by a 19 to 16 strict party line vote.  Smith read part of a joint statement he issued with Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-SD) declaring “We share the goal of reauthorizing the agencies under the America COMPETES Act this year.” Smith concluded the hearing by stating he “will continue to look for bipartisan support for this bill as it moves into the Senate as well.”  Given the strict party differences that were demonstrated in repeated roll calls votes, finding significant bipartisan support for H.R. 1806 will not be easy.