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Once-Bipartisan COMPETES Act Leaves Democrats Cold

Smith, R-Texas, makes his case for funding of his committee during the House Administration Committee hearing on
Smith put a GOP stamp on legislation Democrats once ran on: the COMPETES Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Back in 2007, the America COMPETES Act — landmark legislation aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness through federal investments in scientific research and development — was a bipartisan labor of love.

Inspired by a National Academies’ report published in 2005, the bill was particularly lauded by Democrats, especially the moderates of the New Democrat Coalition who were instrumental in getting the measure over the finish line — and who later laid claim to the act on the stump.

But what a difference eight years makes.

On Wednesday, the House passed a new iteration of the COMPETES Act that’s nearly unrecognizable from its original version. Overall spending remains the same, but under Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the 2015 reauthorization carries the imprimatur of the Republican Party, with targeted cuts the GOP calls “fiscally responsible” and Democrats decry as “draconian.”

The new version contains language that would bar some Department of Energy climate science research, dictate research priorities to entities that have typically had more autonomy and ban certain federally-sponsored research from influencing policy decisions.

With passage of the bill Wednesday night, 217-205, legislation that was once a Democrat-touted achievement has become a potential selling point for the GOP — transformed so thoroughly that President Barack Obama promised to veto the latest version and no Democrats supported it.

What happened?

Plenty of House Democrats said it was impossible not to be cynical about the whole thing, especially given Smith’s reputation as one of the chamber’s staunchest conservatives.

Three members of the New Democrat Coalition elected in 2012 — Reps. Derek Kilmer of Washington, Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut and Scott Peters of California — unsuccessfully sought a floor vote on an amendment that would have upped the bill’s top line by 3.5 percent annually for two years, plus it would give the National Science Foundation flexibility in prioritizing research grants.

They expressed frustration, bewilderment and sadness about the GOP-version of the bill that cleared the House.

“Frankly, [it wasn’t] out of the realm of reason,” Kilmer told CQ Roll Call of the amendment that got blocked from consideration by Republicans.

Lamenting that certain language had been cut out of the new COMPETES Act, Esty said, “There was a good reason [the original 2007 bill] had such bipartisan support” — because it was good policy.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., the current New Democrat Coalition chairman who was in Congress during the bill’s original passage in 2007, was more inclined to put the episode in political and historical context.

For one thing, bipartisanship around the COMPETES Act started to erode before 2015, Kind acknowledged. In 2010, disenchantment with Democrats’ majority on Capitol Hill was starting to sink in and tea party sentiments began shifting Republicans further to the right. It took House Democratic leadership three times to pass the reauthorization.

First, Democrats had to pull the bill from the floor when Republicans successfully, and unexpectedly, won agreement on their motion to slash funding levels and bar use of funds to pay salaries of government employees disciplined for viewing pornography on their government computers. Then, the bill failed under an expedited floor procedure where a measure only passes with a two-thirds majority of all those present and voting. The 2010 reauthorization only passed thanks to use of an arcane parliamentary rule.

“It was tooth and nail to get to 218,” Kind recalled. “It was so hard, and in such a short period of time the attitude on the Republican side just flipped and there were so many of them who couldn’t support it.”

Bill Andresen, associate vice president of federal affairs for the University of Pennsylvania and a former congressional aide, said the COMPETES Act of 2007 was, for top research universities such as his, “the most important piece of legislation that’s passed in 10 years.” He agreed that the 2010 episode was disheartening, and he suggested both parties were to blame.

“There were these ‘gotcha’ amendments offered on the floor that made it problematic, that didn’t really have anything to do with what we were trying to do,” Andresen recalled in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “Democrats and Republicans were trying to put each other in awkward positions.”

The product of the 2010 fight wasn’t perfect, Andresen said, but it was good enough. The 2015 reauthorization is a different matter: “It’s better for us to have no bill at all than to have this one.”

Republicans, of course, deny accusations of injecting partisanship into the 2015 reauthorization.

“Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle would have you believe that the only way you can be pro-science is to spend more taxpayer money,” Smith said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call. “Since the last Congress, we have worked hard to reach an agreement with the minority on numerous policy issues. But we have been clear since the beginning that increases in spending need to have reasonable offsets.”

Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., characterized the bill as common-sense and defended the legislation’s requirement that the National Science Foundation meet a “national interest” justification to receive taxpayer-funded grants. Money was currently being spent on studies, he said, such as “textiles and gender in Iceland” and “a musical about climate change.”

And a Republican spokesperson for the Science Committee added that the head of the NSF doesn’t oppose the new restrictive language — despite what grumbling Democrats say.

Democrats hope a more palatable version will emerge from the Senate, should the chamber take it up. In the meantime, they’ll keep their fingers crossed the appropriators will continue to fund some, if not all, of the COMPETES Act priorities, as they’ve done since the last reauthorization expired in 2013.

As for how New Democrats will adapt their talking points, Peters already seemed prepared.

“If we continue to explain this to the American people,” he said of the GOP bill, “they’ll find it unacceptable, too.”

Correction May 21, 10:35 a.m.

An earlier version of this post said Republicans had pushed through across-the-board spending cuts to the 2015 COMPETES Act. The cuts were targeted.


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