Pushback in the House on Authorizing Science Funding

Pushback in the House on Authorizing Science Funding

Whether Republicans have substantive issues with the bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act or are just trying to disrupt the Democratic agenda, the bill went down to defeat today. The bill does not directly affect the space program, but the episode provides a sobering reminder that even popular programs that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and research and development (R&D) are vulnerable in today’s highly charged political and economic environment.

The legislation, championed by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), had been pulled from floor consideration last week after Republicans succeeded in winning passage of an amendment to recommit the bill to committee. Included in the amendment was a provision prohibiting any funds from being spent to pay the salaries of federal employees who view pornography at work. Not wanting to be viewed as soft on pornography-watching civil servants, Democrats had little choice but to vote in favor of the amendment.

Although some news accounts intimated that this was an obstructionist tactic, Republicans did have some substantive complaints against that version of the bill (H.R. 5116). It provided a 5-year authorization of $85 billion for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and two agencies within the Department of Commerce, along with loan guarantees for small and medium businesses conducting technology development work, and funds for STEM education programs. Republicans argued that was too much money and strayed too far from the original America COMPETES Act passed in 2007. Rep. Gordon wondered aloud as to why these concerns were not raised during markup of the bill at subcommittee or full committee level.

Rep. Gordon modified the bill, reducing it to a 3-year authorization for $47 billion, and including the anti-pornography language the Republicans wanted. The new bill number is H.R. 5325. But it wasn’t enough. The Democratic leadership brought the bill up under suspension of the rules today, which does not allow amendments, but requires a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority. It fell short of the two-thirds required, although it did get a majority. Rep. Gordon said that he was “disappointed, but not deterred,” and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vowed to bring the bill back to the floor before the Memorial Day recess.

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