Not Exactly Smooth Sailing for America COMPETES Bill

By Erik W. Robelen — May 21, 2010 3 min read
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You might think that passing a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act would be a pretty easy sell in Congress.

After all, the legislation, which includes a major focus on improving education in the STEM fields, is supported by a wide array of organizations, from the National Science Teachers Association, the American Chemical Society, and major universities, to the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It’s a pretty safe bet for politicians of all stripes.

But this is an election year. And like so much else in Washington, the bill is generating some partisan tensions. (That said, I should emphasize that at least some Republicans have joined their Democratic colleagues in backing the legislation.)

Last week, House Democrats, who hold a solid majority, abruptly yanked the legislation from the House floor in response to a surprise Republican maneuver that forced an uncomfortable vote on an anti-pornography provision. (In essence, if Democrats were to vote against the GOP measure—which made major changes to the bill, including cutting funding levels and scrapping some proposed new programs—they also would be on record as implicitly saying they’re OK with federal employees’ watching pornography on Uncle Sam’s dime.) I blogged about this action last week.

Then, on Wednesday of this week, Democrats brought the legislation back to the House floor, under special rules that required a two-thirds majority for passage, after having made some new concessions to attract broader support. But they didn’t get enough votes. The final tally was 261-148 in favor, with only 15 Republicans voting aye.

“I’m disappointed, but not deterred,” Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a statement on May 19. “As I’ve said before, this bill is too important to let fall by the wayside. More than half of our economic growth since World War II can be directly attributed to development and adoption of new technologies.”

The press release notes that the bill as revised for this week had two changes. First, it reduced the authorization period for the legislation from five years to three. Second, it included the Republican language added last week that bans the use of the authorized funds to pay the salaries of federal employees disciplined for looking at pornography at work. It also included 52 amendments adopted on the floor earlier this month.

But Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the science committee’s top Republican, was apparently unimpressed.

“While I remain committed to the underlying goals of the America COMPETES Act and to working with Democrats in a true bipartisan fashion to address Republican concerns, the bill before us today continues to take us in a much more costly direction and authorizes a number of new programs which have little to do with prioritizing investments in basic research and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education,” he said in a press release.

Norman Ornstein, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, penned a piece for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call criticizing the Republicans for their maneuver on the America COMPETES Act, a device known as a motion to recommit, or MTR.

He explained what happened this way: “These MTRs have been in the news not because they represented the minority party’s alternative vision for dealing with energy policy or science and tech and jobs policy—but because they were designed to kill bills by offering red herring ‘gotcha’ amendments, including one in the energy bill to require contractors to ensure that no employee had been convicted of child molestation and one in the [America COMPETES] bill to require that any federal employee who had viewed or downloaded pornography be fired. Both were attempts to force Democrats to withdraw their bills—and more importantly, to set up 30-second attack ads against vulnerable members for supporting child molesters and pornography.”

For more background on the education components of the America COMPETES legislation, see this blog item and this EdWeek story.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.