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May 20, 2010

GOP Blocks Federal Funding for Science and Technology

Michael Feldman

An ultra-partisan political climate and an economy that has Republican lawmakers wringing their hands over deficit spending have conspired to sink the COMPETES reauthorization bill. On Wednesday, the House GOP voted down H.R. 5325, the bill that would have committed more than $40 billion in federal science and technology programs over the next three years.

Designed to double federal spending in science and technology over the next decade, the 2007 America COMPETES Act targeted money for basic and applied science research at national research labs and universities. The US federal agencies involved in such work include the National Science Foundation, National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and NASA, among others. Under the proposed authorization, they would have seen some of their healthiest budgets in years.

If you’ve been following this saga, you’ll know that COMPETES has never been fully funded. But with a very science-friendly administration and Congress in charge, this looked like the year when the government would finally get the program on track. A few weeks ago I exchanged some emails with Peter Harsha, of the Computing Research Association, who has been diligently tracking the passage of the legislation. At that time (late April), the Republicans were adding dozens of amendments to the bill and threatening even more. Harsha felt that this was just the minority looking to score some political points, but “with the full expectation that their amendments will get voted down and that they’ll still support the bill when it comes to final passage.” Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Despite general bipartisan support for the bill in committee, Republicans blocked its passage with a minority of votes. The Democrats miscalculated by bringing the legislation to the floor under a procedure that kept Republicans from tacking on more amendments. Under the rules, that meant a two-thirds majority would be needed for passage. And even though 15 Republicans plus all the Democrats voted in favor of the measure, the final 261-148 vote was 12 short of the supermajority needed.

The depressing news doesn’t stop there. H.R. 5325 was actually a compromise bill from the original H.R. 5116, which provided for $85 billion worth of funding for five years instead of $47 billion for three. The new bill also included banning the use of COMPETES funds to pay the salaries of federal employees caught looking at pornography at work — because, as every good Republican knows, you can’t do innovative research if you’re perusing porn all day. OK, maybe that’s true, but I want to see the science.

Anyway, in spite of cutting the funding by nearly half and injecting some righteousness into the bill, conservative lawmakers still voted to kill it. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Science and Technology (ST&T) Committee, claimed the bill was still too costly, given the state of the federal deficit. Herbert Hoover would have been proud.

It’s pretty easy to chalk all this up to election-year politicking, but given the GOP’s general uneasiness with science — stem cell research, global climate change, and so on — it can’t be too surprising when they balk at funding such work. According to a 2009 Pew Research poll, only six percent of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, so when the GOP votes against these types of programs, they’re not exactly abandoning their base.

Fortunately, the reauthorization bill is not completely dead. ST&T Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) intends to reintroduce the bill at a later date, hoping for a more favorable outcome. You can keep tabs on this legislative soap opera over at the Computing Research Association blog.