Refocusing COMPETES on Basic Research

REP. RALPH HALL (R-TX)

The America COMPETES Act, first signed into law three years ago, is a very popular bill because it provides funding for basic research, math and science education, and aims to improve our Nation’s competitiveness in the world. Because COMPETES is so popular, everyone wants a piece of the pie.

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In 2007, the House-passed bill was a $24 billion package. However, the 2010 version was $96 billion, as introduced. Numerous new and unnecessary programs were added, and other programs were expanded well beyond the original scope and intent of the 2007 bill. Even after a few very modest concessions, this reauthorization still spends twice as much as the original bill.

Regardless, a lot of people were disappointed when two weeks ago it was pulled from the House floor before final passage, and then again last week when it was defeated by a straight up or down vote. Voting against a popular bill is a tough choice. However, I and many of my Republican colleagues voted ‘no,’ not because we want to play political games, but because we believe the bill can be better.

The vote to improve the bill came on May 13th in the form of a Motion to Recommit (MTR), which passed the House with bipartisan support, by a vote of 292 to 126, resulting in the Democrats’ decision to pull the bill from consideration. Blogs and a few editorial boards have been openly critical of this attempt to improve the bill, going so far as to say it was instead an effort to “kill” or “derail” the COMPETES reauthorization.

Democrats argue that the MTR included a difficult-to-vote-against provision that would disallow funds from paying the salary of any government employee disciplined for viewing or downloading pornographic material on his or her work computer. I believe the “porn” provision has merit in addressing a very serious policy issue. I believe what is overlooked is that the MTR also included very substantive provisions to address Republican concerns raised throughout the legislative process.

The MTR cut new and duplicative programs, increased Congressional oversight over the effectiveness of the programs, and most importantly, cut spending by over $40 billion. I stand by this effort to cut spending and improve the bill. I was disappointed that the Democrats decided to pull the bill, rather than let the full House vote on it. I believe the improved version would have passed by an overwhelming margin.

Mr. Norman Ornstein, in a May 19 Roll Call editorial, questioned the legitimacy of the MTR and noted that COMPETES enjoyed broad bipartisan support in 2007 and “little division or controversy” this year. What is overlooked is that this bill is definitely not the same bill that passed in 2007. No one is more respected than Mr. Ornstein, and no one questions the thrust of COMPETES. We simply want the funds to be spent wisely, as suggested in the MTR.

The original COMPETES was a targeted investment in basic research, based on the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. This reauthorization, however, includes massive spending increases, new duplicative and unnecessary programs, and shifts focus away from basic research and toward technology commercialization activities. At all stages of the legislative process, Republicans offered dozens of amendments attempting to address these very valid concerns. Unfortunately Republicans have run into roadblocks. Of the 54 amendments permitted to be considered on the House floor, 50 were Democratic while only 4 were Republican. With very few exceptions, Democrats successfully blocked GOP amendments from consideration.

Last week, Democrats made a second attempt to pass a new version of the bill under an expedited process that does not allow for further amendments, but requires a two-thirds majority of votes to pass. The new bill, H.R. 5325, included all 52 amendments adopted during the consideration of H.R. 5116 the previous week, but only two of the six provisions from the successful Republican MTR.

Most Republicans again voted ‘no’ not because we don’t support innovation, but because we do believe these investments are vitally important. We want a better, more streamlined bill that remains focused on investing in strong basic research – not creating duplicative clusters and hubs, in addition to loan guarantees and advertising campaigns.

Declaring Republicans to be “obstructionist” fails to take into account the responsibility of all Members of Congress to provide due diligence when spending taxpayer dollars. Simply put, we’re doing what we were elected to do as representatives of our constituents. In the true spirit of bipartisanship, let’s work together to improve this bill, restrain spending, cut duplicative programs, focus on priority basic research and pass this important piece of legislation.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) is Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science and Technology

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