Divided Science Committee Sends ARPA-E Bill to House Floor

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Publication date: 
1 June 2007

Split roughly along party lines, the House Science and Technology Committee has sent to the full House legislation to establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy. Indicative of the division on the legislation was the final vote of 25-12.

Passage of the bill occurred after the committee considered and largely rejected 13 amendments in a mark-up session that lasted 2 ½ hours. All the voting Democrats on the committee supported the bill. Republican members voted against the bill, with the exception of Dana Rohrabacher (CA), Roscoe Bartlett (MD), Vernon Ehlers (MI), and Bob Inglis (SC).

Last week's action on H.R. 364 departed from the committee's traditional bipartisan approach. Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) began and concluded the hearing by speaking warmly of each other, Hall saying that there were "bound to be some times we are going to disagree." Gordon remarked that "every bill that has come out of this committee has been unanimous," and despite extensive consultation between Members and staff before the markup, he concluded, "At the end of the day, we are going to have our first disagreement." Predicting the outcome, he said that the committee's vote to send the bill to the floor would be bipartisan, but not unanimous.

There were several broad lines of debate during the markup. Gordon argued that a new agency was needed within the Department of Energy to "get around the bureaucracy" that is wary of high-risk R&D. "If you are in the DOE and fail, you are in trouble," he told his colleagues. Gordon noted that the establishment of such an agency was a recommendation of the 2005 NAS Gathering Storm report. Indicative of the department's attitude was its failure to comply with a 2005 law requiring DOE to provide Congress with a report on an ARPA-like agency. This report was due by January of this year, and Gordon said that the department had failed to even contract for this study.

Hall and most of his Republican colleagues have problems with the creation of a new bureaucracy based on what he called a "vague" recommendation in the Gathering Storm report. Opponents also fear that the "way, way too expensive" agency (authorized at $4.9 billion for five years) could divert scarce money from the DOE Office of Science. Critics also dispute whether DARPA is a good model, since it has DOD as a guaranteed client, where ARPA-E would not (since private industry would commercialize any product or process.) They also pointed to the unsuccessful experience of the Department of Homeland Security's HSARPA. Gordon and Ehlers responded that the comparison to HSARPA was a "failed argument" and "not valid."

There was discussion about funding for ARPA-E. Gordon explained that a $14 billion "big oil" tax benefit that was going to be ended could provide funding. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) asked Gordon to identify the provision in the bill providing for this funding mechanism; Gordon replied that it was "not possible" for there to be such a provision because that was within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means.

Some of the Republican-sponsored amendments were supported by the committee, but most were rejected, with Gordon characterizing several of them as "killer amendments" designed to undermine the legislation. The bill was passed by the committee, and now goes to the full House for its consideration. During the mark-up, Gordon stated that the establishment of ARPA-E is a "high priority" for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

The Senate passed legislation in April authorizing the establishment of ARPA-E within the Department of Energy. The Administration, while supportive of finding new ways to support innovative energy research at DOE, is opposed to a new agency. FYI #46 (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/046.html) provides additional information on the Gathering Storm recommendation, the Senate bill, the Administration's position, and a previous hearing on the House bill.