Texas congressman uses porn to kill science funding

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May 17 2010 12:34 PM

Texas congressman uses porn to kill science funding

I know that there are rules to the way laws are made by our government here in the U.S., and that sometimes these rules seem weird and arcane. In general, these rules have evolved to make sure that the majority doesn't stomp on the minority, and the minority still has a voice.

TXRepRalphHallBut it's also clear that those rules can be abused. In the case of U.S. Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX), "abuse" isn't nearly a big enough word. "Cynically manipulated" might be a bit better. He killed a bill that would fund science innovation and education by tying it to punishing people who look at porn at work.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Seriously. This is truly disgusting, and has to be seen to be believed. Please read that link above.

Basically, the America COMPETES act, instituted under the Bush Administration in 2007, funds a lot of technology and other endeavors to keep the US competitive in the world market. Of course, in the current economic market, we don't have a lot of money to go around. But this bill would have re-authorized that earlier act, funding what is essentially seed corn, making sure that in the years to come we have a robust investment in our own economy. I wasn't that familiar with it, but after reading about it I'll say it's one of the few things done by the previous President I think is a good idea. So did a lot of others: this reauthorization bill had over 100 co-sponsors in the House.

I say "had", because after the shameful and politically transparent move by Rep. Hall, the bill is basically dead. This bill would have extended funding for several more years in key places, including science education. Hall is the ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology Committee that prepped the bill. There had been objections by Republicans on the committee to the amount of spending of the bill. The Democrat-controlled committee made some concessions in that area (shaving 10% of the spending off), but still passed the bill out of committee. The next step would be a vote on the floor of the House.

However, right before it was to go to the floor, Rep. Hall called a Motion to Recommit. Because of those weird rules I mentioned above, this meant that Congress would either have to agree to the Motion and have the bill sent back to committee -- where it would die -- or overrule the Motion. Now follow this carefully: part of the Motion Rep. Hall submitted was language added to the bill that said that it would prevent the government from paying salaries to employees who looked at porn on government computers.

By doing this, Hall basically bet all his chips. Hall's move left Congress, notably Democrats, with two options: kill this much-needed bill that invests in America's future in science and technology, or overrule a motion punishing people for downloading pornography. If they did the latter, the far right noise machine, always eager for red meat in the political arena, could then say Democrats voted to continue paying employees who looked at porn.

Facing this sort of choice, a large number of Democrats backed off. Hall's Motion passed, and the bill went back to committee where it's now essentially dead.

Of course, watching porn on the government's dime has nothing to do with this bill. The only reason I can think of that this language was added is that it was a gambit where Hall wins either way: the bill dies, or Democrats put their head in the right-wing media guillotine. Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), who is the Chairman of the committee, agrees:

We're all opposed to federal employees watching pornography. That is not a question; but that's not what this was about... The Motion to Recommit was about gutting funding for our science agencies.

And while Representative Hall pulls this deplorable stunt, our nation is suffering mightily in scientific education. In this heart-rending post by my friend, astronomer and educator Pamela Gay, she laments how we're letting our teachers and our children down by not funding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Read her post, then read again what Hall did.

Our future is more important than being a chip in a political game of poker. Unfortunately, in this case, Congress folded.