Not a Pretty Picture: House Science Committee Marks Up DOE R&D Bill

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Publication date: 
23 June 1995
Number: 
86

What was scheduled to take only a few hours on Tuesday turned into
a battle that was waged over parts of three days this week as the
full House Science Committee struggled to complete its work on H.R.
1816, the Department of Energy Civilian R&D Authorization Act of
1995.  This mark up was notable for what seemed at times to
approach almost open warfare between committee Republicans and
Democrats.  Lost in the process was the committee's bipartisan
tradition, with other losses still to be tallied. 

Although the committee considered numerous amendments, the most
substantial action occurred almost unnoticed at the beginning of
the mark up when House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker
(R-PA) offered an "amendment in the nature of a substance."  In
plain English, Walker substituted a complete bill with new funding
levels for some programs in place of the bill that Rep. Dana
Rohrabacher's (R-CA) subcommittee had completed work on earlier
this month (see FYIs #79, 80.)  The committee quickly agreed to
make this version the working substitute, increasing spending
limits in a number of areas, such as high energy physics, nuclear
physics, and basic energy sciences.  Walker said that he was able
to find additional money by working with the House leadership.
Although this would ordinarily be considered good news, committee
Democrats expressed great consternation at the way in which this
was done.  Ranking Minority Member George Brown (D-CA) and his
Democratic colleagues pointed out that during the subcommittee mark
up, Rep. Rohrabacher had resisted any attempt to increase spending
levels since it would break the self-imposed spending cap the
subcommittee was operating under.

This discussion set the tenor of the next two full days of the mark
up.  Most attention centered not as much on science and technology
as it did politics and process.  As one senior Democrat quipped, "I
really don't give a damn about the science, but I love the
politics."

Also coming into play was Walker's attempt to make his committee
relevant to the appropriations process.  Although this has been a
long sought objective of the committee, Democratic members largely
derided these efforts, one saying, "here we are trying to call
ourselves relevant...the appropriations committees aren't paying
any attention to this." 

The committee agreed (25 - 12) to cut funding for the Gas
Turbine-Modular Helium Reactor.  Rohrabacher opposed this
amendment, comparing this reactor favorably to that of the fusion
program where he said Congress is told, "give us a chance and a
gazillion dollars and we might be able to produce something in 40
years."  The committee also defeated an amendment which would have
killed ITER by a vote of 14 - 26.

Thursday's mark up continued a controversy from the night before
when Chairman Walker called a committee vote on a Democratic
amendment to increase authorization levels while a vote was
underway on the House floor.  At the start of the Thursday mark up
Brown cited the "bitter controversy" that had arisen, and asked for
a re-vote.  Walker said that the committee had not recessed, but
agreed to a new vote.  The amendment by Rep. John Tanner (D-TN)
failed a second time, which came as no surprise since there was
little cross-over voting by committee members of either party on
most amendments.

Also of note was an amendment offered, but then withdrawn, by Rep.
Joe Barton (R-TX) to establish a DOE lab closing commission,
modeled after the base closing commission.  Walker said that this
was a "very important point" promising that hearings would be held
later this year.  This is, Walker said, an "issue that will not be
ignored."  The committee defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Tim
Roemer (D-IN) to make an immediate one-third cut in the number of
DOE laboratory employees.  This lost by a vote of 17 - 23.  After
a number of parliamentary moves, the committee agreed to take the
$25 million that was saved by deauthorizing the gas turbine reactor
and increase the fusion authorization. 

The committee moved into new ground during its consideration of an
amendment by Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat representing the
Pittsburgh, PA area.  Doyle sought to restore funding to DOE's
fossil fuels program by making a series of offsetting cuts in DOE
facility funding -- most or all of which are located in Republican
districts.  Republicans cried foul at Doyle's selection.  Doyle
replied that he did not check where these facilities were, saying
they were selected on their merits.  Walker then offered an
amendment to Doyle's amendment, which would have denied
considerable funding for DOE's Pittsburgh Energy Technology Center.
Walker said he would withdraw his amendment if Doyle would as well.

The reaction of committee members to Walker's amendment was
overwhelming.  One freshman Republican turned to Walker (one of the
most powerful figures in the House Republican leadership) and said
of the amendment that the committee did not have time for "stupid
stuff like that."  Brown said that Walker's characterization of
Doyle's motives "could be taken down."  Brown continued, "that kind
of tactic is what exacerbates the feelings on both sides."  Walker,
after considerable discussion, apologized and then withdrew his
amendment.  Doyle's original amendment failed by a vote of 21 to
23.

So what does this all mean?  The way this process is supposed to
work is that authorizing bills are to be passed before
appropriations bills.  That did not happen this year, as is usually
the case.  That, in and of itself, would not be news.  What is news
is the new tenor on the committee.  The House Science Committee,
even during its intense debates over the SSC and the space station,
was always notable for its bipartisan nature.

While all of this was going on, the House Appropriations Committee
met and approved H.R. 1905, the FY 1996 Energy and Water
Development Appropriations Bill.  The House will vote on this bill
next week.