House Nixes More Research Spending in COMPETES Bill

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

The House of Representatives rebelled today against the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, employing an unusual mixture of money and sex.

Catching the Democratic leadership by surprise, members voted 292 to 126 to block passage of a 5-year authorization bill that would have provided healthy increases in the research and education budgets of the National Science Foundation and research programs at the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. Instead, a bipartisan majority voted for a 3-year freeze on the budgets for those agencies; it also cut all funding for DOE's new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The actual vote was to recommit the bill, HR 5116, for an unspecified amount of time.

Two weeks earlier, Representative Bart Gordon (D–TN) had belatedly trimmed nearly $10 billion from a bill he had drafted within the House Science and Technology Committee that he chairs. During the bill's markup, Gordon managed to beat back Republican attempts to eliminate projected growth in spending that would have resulted in a 10-year doubling for those agencies, with a total authorization of $82 billion. But today, 121 Democrats joined Republicans in supporting a floor amendment offered by the panel's ranking member, Representative Ralph Hall (R–TX), to slash that total by another $8 billion.

Why did Republicans succeed this time around? Part of the reason was the growing unease among lawmakers in supporting a bill calling for increases in federal spending when this year's federal deficit is expected to exceed $1 trillion. "Given that our nation's debt is currently $13 trillion and our nation's budget deficit has increased 50% in 3 years, it is prudent to put the brakes on significant jumps in spending for years to come," explained a press statement from the minority after the vote. The amendment also deleted $1.3 billion in authorized spending for new programs.

But another reason is sex—or more specifically, the legislators' unhappiness with how the National Science Foundation responded to an internal investigation that found several employees had been viewing pornography on the job. In addition to slashing spending levels, Hall's amendment specified that "none of the funds authorized under this Act may be used to pay the salary of any individual who has been officially disciplined ... for viewing, downloading, or exchanging pornography on a federal government computer or while performing federal government duties."

The amendment doesn't mention NSF by name, but the language's target was no mystery to lawmakers. "The Inspector General of the National Science Foundation identified multiple instances of NSF employees downloading and viewing pornography, including one senior official that spent at least 331 days viewing pornography from his government computer," explains the Republican press release. "American taxpayers should not pay the salaries of employees who view pornographic material at work."

Gordon was furious at the last-minute addition to a bill that had been painstakingly cobbled together over several months. "We're all opposed to federal employees watching pornography," he said after the vote. "That is not a question; but that's not what this was about. The Motion to Recommit was about gutting funding for our science agencies. ... I'm disappointed that politics trumped good policy. The Minority was willing to trade American jobs and our nation's economic competitiveness for the chance to run a good political ad."

Calling the bill "too important to let die," Gordon said,"I would like to see it brought up again, but timing is unclear." And his call for the scientific community to rally support has already been embraced. "We hope that the House finds a way to bring the bill back in a form that preserves the investments in research and education that were part of the committee's bill," says Barry Toiv, a spokesperson for the Association of American Universities.

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