Last week, the Senate passed by an overwhelming margin a comprehensive S&T authorization bill demonstrating the great concern there is on Capitol Hill about America's scientific and technological competitiveness. Said Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM): "Today is a great day. Today, the Senate begins a process of rising above the gathering storm."
Domenici was one of many high-profile senators who worked for two years to bring to the Senate floor S. 761, the America COMPETES Act or the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act. For four days, the Senate devoted many hours of floor time to consideration of this bill and the S&T problems that it would address. The discussion culminated on April 25, when the Senate passed S. 761 by a vote of 88-8 (see Vote #00146 at http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/vote_menu_110_1.htm .)
Senate passage of this bill was never in doubt, as it was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Member Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and 68 of their colleagues spanning the Senate's ideological spectrum. S. 761's foundations were built on similar legislation initiated in the last Congress, which in turn responded to reports such as the National Academies' "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."
S. 761 is an authorization bill that sets program policy and spending limits. Under this legislation, almost $60 billion is authorized for various programs for FY 2008 through FY 2011, about $16 billion of which are additional dollars. This is a massive 294-page bill with more than 80 sections. Its provisions include the authorization of a five-year doubling of the National Science Foundation and a ten-year doubling of the DOE Office of Science budgets. Another provision establishes a goal of an eight percent set aside of R&D funding for high-risk, high pay off research. There are many pages devoted to programs to strengthen math and science education. Additional provisions pertain to infrastructure development. A constellation of S&T agencies are identified in the bill, the most prominent of which are NASA, NIST, NOAA, DOE Office of Science, NSF, and the Department of Education. Other agencies include DOD, NIH, the Department of Transportation, Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security. The bill authorizes new agencies such as ARPA-Energy, and institutes, coordinating activities, and panels. OSTP is also cited, as are the National Academies.
Befitting its wide-ranging support, S. 761 was considered on the Senate floor less than three weeks after it was introduced. As is the case with legislation of this magnitude, dozens of amendments were offered on the Senate floor. Some were accepted, many withdrawn after senators discussed shortcomings they had identified with the legislation, and some subjected to roll call votes. In the end, the bill's major provisions were left largely unchanged.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) captured the mood of his colleagues when early in the debate he observed: "India and China and other countries from the former Soviet Union now represent nearly three billion new capitalists who are coming at us in a competitive way through the Internet where, in one click, anyone in this country can order a product from anywhere in the world and have that delivered to his or her doorstep. Not only can these countries and entrepreneurs in these countries manufacture at a fraction of the cost that oftentimes is required here in the United States, but in coordination with their governments they are climbing up the value chain by developing the professional talents in areas such as research and engineering and in telemedicine and in finance--in a whole variety of areas." Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who was instrumental in raising the profile of this issue, stated: "the Congress doubled funding for the National Institutes of Health with a great payoff, most people felt, in terms of our health and research for cures for diseases. But we did not do as good a job during that period of time on the physical sciences, which are also important to the health sciences. This, hopefully, will begin to change that." Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation explained: "To succeed in a whole host of arenas, we need scientific discoveries and a technologically savvy workforce. If enacted, the America COMPETES Act can provide the first step for this country to get back into the global race. Many countries are looking to overtake us to claim technological and economic superiority. While we continue to lead, we cannot take this lead for granted."
Despite the overwhelming vote for S. 761, there were dissenting voices. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) criticized the bill because it authorized new spending, saying "The number one risk for competitiveness is our debt." John Sununu (R-NH) faulted the bill for specifying how much money NSF should spend for specific educational initiatives. Judd Gregg (R-NH) called the legislation "feel-good initiatives."
The Bush Administration "has serious concerns with" sections of S. 761. A three-page Statement of Administration Policy (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/legislative/sap/110-1/s761sap-s.pdf ) explained: "The Administration believes that the bill does not prioritize basic research, authorizes excessive and inappropriate spending, and creates unnecessary bureaucracy and education programs." The statement repeatedly used "objects" and "strongly objects" in its language, adding that there are "Constitutional concerns" about some of the legislation's provisions. It did not include the word "veto."
What happens next? The House of Representatives has or will be considering legislation written by its Committee on Science and Technology on components of S. 761 on education and the reauthorization of NSF and NIST. While Bingaman said "I hope we can get the bill through the House of Representatives quickly," the breadth of S. 761 and House procedures will work against that happening on a rapid schedule for the entire bill.
The must-pass FY 2008 funding bills are moving on a separate track. During Senate consideration of S. 761, Bingaman stated: "I would reiterate, as we have many times in this debate, these are authorizing levels. This is not actual appropriation of money. That is the heavy lifting which we are going to have to do later on this year." It now appears that the House Appropriations Committee will begin the drafting of some of its FY 2008 bills in the middle of May, with the Senate to follow later in the month or in June.