Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Committee on Science, Space, and Technology/Majority

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX)

Amid Partisan Split, U.S. House Panel Approves Controversial NSF Bill

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

The chair of the House of Representatives science committee threw the legislative equivalent of a no-hitter last night, winning his panel’s approval of a bill that sets policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF) on a straight party-line vote. And although the committee’s Democratic minority failed to make any changes to a bill that the scientific community feels is seriously flawed, they made a strategic decision that they hope will lead to victory on a related NSF spending bill now pending on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Playing flawless defense, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) and the committee’s Republican majority rejected all 13 Democratic amendments to the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) Act, which covers programs at NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In straight party-line votes, the committee voted 20 to 16 to block attempts to remove language that would alter NSF’s grantsmaking processes and reshuffle funding within the $7 billion agency.

In fact, Smith came within one vote of throwing a legislative perfect game: Representative Bill Posey (R–FL) was the sole Republican to vote for any of the Democratic-backed amendments, supporting creation of a pilot program at NIST to spur innovation. But his "yea" vote simply meant that amendment lost by a margin of 17 to 19 rather than the 16 to 20 score recorded by the other dozen failed amendments.

Panel Republicans also used their four-vote majority to win passage of an amendment by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA) that would lower by another $50 million the amount NSF is authorized to spend in 2015 on social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) research. The FIRST Act already contained a $56 million reduction to the current $256 million SBE budget.

In its final 20 to 16 vote, the panel voted to send FIRST to the full House, although it is not yet clear if the body’s leadership will schedule a vote on the bill this year.

Yesterday’s orderly markup, which lasted only 45 minutes, stood in sharp contrast to last week’s rowdy 6-hour session. A demand from Democrats for recorded votes on most of the 28 amendments before the committee prevented Smith from completing work on a bill that has provoked strong opposition from academic leaders, professional societies, and university-industry coalitions that advocate for science.

The only surprise yesterday was a last-minute decision by Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL) to withdraw one amendment that would have raised the amount of money that Congress authorizes NSF to spend in 2015 to equal the amount that the House Appropriations Committee approved for NSF earlier this month. Authorization bills usually set budget targets for an agency that exceed what appropriators are willing to spend. In a break from tradition, however, the FIRST Act authorizes $127 million less for NSF next year than the $7.4 billion in the 2015 appropriations bill, which covers several federal agencies.

Knowing that his amendment was fated to lose on the same party-line vote as the other amendments, Lipinski told ScienceInsider that he withdrew it so that the committee’s Republicans did not have to publicly vote against the higher spending level for NSF. Lipinski hopes the maneuver will give some Republicans the green light to support the higher amount in the appropriations bill, which the House is expected to vote on this week. “They wouldn’t have been able to do that after voting against my amendment,” he explains.

The appropriations committee’s 2015 spending level for NSF is actually $150 million higher than what President Barack Obama requested for the agency. And like Lipinski, the White House is doing everything it can to encourage House Republicans to support the higher amount.

In an official statement yesterday on the overall spending bill (H.R. 4660), the Obama administration highlighted dozens of instances in which the bill falls short of its request for a particular program. But its analysis of the NSF portion of the bill is stunningly brief—and entirely positive: “The Administration appreciates the Committee's support for NSF.  NSF invests in important research and education and lays the foundation for economic growth,” it reads.

*Correction, 29 May, 11:30 a.m.: As Science reported in its initial version of this article, the panel voted 20 to 16 to send the FIRST bill to the full House. We apologize for the confusion about the nature of the vote taken by the committee.

Posted in Funding, Policy FIRST Act