Skip to content

Science Panel Chairman COMPETES to Win

Bart Gordon may be retiring this year after 26 years in the House, but he’s certainly not coasting to the finish line. His perseverance last month in passing the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act in the face of stiff Republican opposition is testament to his own competitive spirit (he also runs marathons).

[IMGCAP(1)]Now in his second term as chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, the Tennessee Democrat is steeped in the scientific method of trial and error. As a former member of the House Rules Committee from 1987 to 1994, Gordon is also steeped in procedural politics and knows there is more than one way to skin a legislative cat. In the case of the COMPETES bill, the third time was a charm (and the cat was still recognizable).

In his first term as Science chairman in 2007, Gordon sponsored the original COMPETES Act (which those who read my last column know stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science). Its aim is to keep America innovative and competitive into the future by providing increased emphasis on science and research. At the time of its enactment, it was so noncontroversial and bipartisan that it sailed into law handily.

This year’s reauthorization bill was reported by the Science Committee on a 39-8 vote, with Republicans split, 5-8. The five-year, $86 billion authorization doubles current spending for a variety of existing and new programs under the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Energy Department and for training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Gordon sought a “structured” rule from the Rules Committee (permitting only specified amendments). Seventy-six amendments were filed with Rules on May 10, 58 by Democrats and 18 by Republicans. The following day, the committee reported a special rule making in order 54 amendments — 50 by Democrats and only four by Republicans (though committee Republicans tried unsuccessfully to make in order an additional six amendments). The House adopted the rule the next day on a near party-line vote.

After two days of floor consideration, during which all Democratic amendments offered were adopted, along with three of the four Republican amendments, the House arrived at the penultimate step in the process — the Republican motion to recommit the bill with instructions (a final chance for minority amendments). The motion, offered by Science and Technology ranking member Ralph Hall (R-Texas), contained a series of nine amendments, including provisions to strike five new programs, pare the bill back from a five- to a three-year authorization, reduce funding to fiscal 2010 levels, prohibit paying the salaries of government employees disciplined for viewing pornography on their computers, and deny grants to schools that bar military recruiters.

The motion to recommit is actually a two-step process: First, the House votes on whether to instruct the committee chairman to immediately report back the amendments specified in the motion; and second, if that passes, the chairman reports back the amendments “forthwith” to the House for votes on adopting them. Immediately after the motion to instruct was adopted, 292-196, with 121 Democrats joining all but one Republican in favor, the majority leadership pulled the bill rather than proceed with the second vote on agreeing to the amendments.

Undeterred, Gordon introduced a new bill the following week, incorporating the 52 amendments adopted to the previous bill, as well as the shorter authorization period and anti-pornography provision from the motion to recommit (while retaining the higher funding levels and new programs). He called up the bill under suspension of the rules (40 minutes of debate, no amendments and no motion to recommit). However, suspension bills require a two-thirds vote for passage, and Gordon fell 12 votes short of that.

One week later, Gordon made a final effort to salvage the original bill using a surprise procedural tactic. Because the previously adopted Republican motion to recommit with instructions contained nine disparate amendments, Gordon was able to demand separate votes on all nine. The reason such a “demand for a division of the question” was so unexpected is that it has never been tried before. While the published precedents of the House include instances in which demands for a division were ruled out of order on motions to instruct containing multiple amendments (the first of the two-step process), there is an instance in 1993 in which a parliamentary inquiry confirmed it could be done on agreeing to the amendments (the second step).

In this instance, however, Gordon and his leadership had two weeks between recommit votes to contemplate procedural alternatives. The upshot was that the anti-pornography and military recruiter amendments were easily adopted, while the shortened authorization period, reduced funding levels and attempts to strike five new programs were all rejected. The bill went on to pass 262-150, with 17 Republicans joining all Democrats in support.

The twin morals of the story are: (1) short-changing the minority in the Rules Committee invites payback on the House floor, and (2) persistence by a determined majority ultimately pays off.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

Recent Stories

‘One existential threat’: In shift, Biden gives Trump a tongue-lashing

Supreme Court tosses Colorado’s decision to bar Trump from ballot

Fiscal 2024 spending finale starts to take shape

Security fence to go up at Capitol for State of the Union

California has no shortage of key House races on Tuesday

Alabama, Arkansas races to watch on Super Tuesday