COMPETES not dead! And a mea culpa

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May 19 2010 6:25 AM

COMPETES not dead! And a mea culpa

I have some good news, and a mea culpa of sorts.

uscapitolFirst, the good stuff: the COMPETES act may go to the Floor of the House of Representatives for voting as early as today! This act will fund a lot of scientific innovation and education, and is sorely needed if we are to invest in our future as a country. I'm very happy this is happening -- assuming it passes, which I think it will. The original act passed in 2007, and much of this new bill authorizes funding to be extended.

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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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Now, regular readers may be wondering, "Wait! Didn't you say this bill was dead?"

Yes, I did. You can read that earlier post to get the background, but basically this bill passed through committee, but at the last second a Representative from Texas, Ralph Hall, added some language to it using a parliamentary procedure called a Motion to Recommit. As I understood it at the time, this meant that Congressmen had two choices: overturn the Motion and let the bill be voted upon, or send the bill back to committee where it would almost certainly be tabled indefinitely, the usual outcome of such an event.

The problem was that overturning the Motion was a political landmine; the language Hall added punished people who were downloading porn on their government computers, saying that no money from the act could be used to pay those people's salaries. So overturning the Motion meant Democrats would basically be handing the far-right media spin machine gasoline for the fire: they would claim the Democrats weren't punishing the people looking at porn.

So they voted to send the bill back to committee. This is where I made my mistake: everything I had read said that this meant the bill would stagnate and die. However, this is incorrect: the bill can be reintroduced to the House Floor "under suspension", which means as-is with the new language included (technically, this is because the Motion was submitted "with instructions"). This was not clear to me before -- the rules can be quite Byzantine -- and I readily admit that.

However -- and this is a big however -- it does NOT change the fact that Hall held this bill hostage by throwing in the non sequitur of the porn addendum. He wanted some changes made to it dealing with funding levels and for how long it would be funded. The committee has apparently acquiesced to this demand... but I'll note that the shameful language about pornography is still in the bill!

It seems obvious that the Democrats on the committee had to back off on this, or else Hall or someone like him would use some other procedure to hamstring the bill again.

I know that a lot of riders are added to bills when they're created. Usually, though, it's done as a pet project that gets attached to some bill that everyone will vote yea on, thus getting that pet project approved. That stinks, in many cases, but at least the major bill gets passed. In this case, though, the language was added in an attempt to stop the bill. This may also be done on a regular basis in Congress, but I still say that it was done in an underhanded way, and done cynically to a bill that we desperately need if we are to compete in the global marketplace of science and technology.

Don't ignore the manipulative actions of Representative Hall because of my error on the status of the bill. The bulk and the meat of what I wrote in that earlier post still stands.

But... I'll take a deep breath. The good news to focus on is that the COMPETES reauthorization will get its day in court. I just hope that Democrats -- and the American people -- learn a lesson from this.

Thanks to Dan Vergano for tweeting about this. Image credit: kevindooley's Flickr photostream, used under the Creative Commons license.

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