The House Science Committee Is a Circus

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 22 2014 10:37 AM

Circus of the House Science Commitee

And in this clause, we take away some funding for research midway through the fiscal year. Good luck with the adjustments!

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FIRST, a bill written by two Republicans, Reps. Lamar Smith and Larry Bucshon, is universally hated by scientists. It would make them do more paper pushing, and harm the research process. It has a few worthy parts—including a scheme to expand computer science training—but on the whole it is terrible. Democrats, boffins, and even the former head of Lockheed Martin dislike what it proposes. But it has been pushed hard in the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology because Smith chairs it. On Wednesday the full committee was called to hear proposed amendments to the bill.

The proposed changes—and the debates they provoked—played out along two lines. Democrats fear that the United States is falling behind the rest of world, and more government funding for science is needed to prevent this slide. Republicans fear that America is falling behind their vision of the country as a thrifty, God-fearing one (where there’s little room for such arrogance as thinking humans could change the climate), and stopping the government from doing all the things they don’t like is the key to righting the course. Democrats repeatedly called to amend FIRST as a new iteration of America COMPETES, a bipartisan act signed by President George W. Bush and reauthorized by President Obama in 2010. (The renewal has expired.) American science needs more funding and less congressional red tape, they urge. Republicans replied that in a “fiscally constrained environment,” science must be trimmed and inefficiencies fished out.


An hour and a half into the session, two astonishing things happened. Rep. Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat on the committee, pointed out something obvious. The bill being marked up proposes changes to spending for FY2014. The money has already been appropriated, the scientific bodies the bill regulates are already spending it, and the fiscal year will be more than three-quarters of the way complete by the time a bill could reach the House floor for a vote. Should it pass, agencies would have to scramble to meet reconfigured budgets. FIRST proposes specific funding allocations to specific types of research. Some fields (such as social sciences, behavioral sciences, and geosciences) would be aggressively cut, and the National Science Foundation would need to reshuffle research funding late in the fiscal year in order to avoid exceeding these new numbers. How on Earth would that work? It was, in fact, “highly irresponsible” that the bill was even still being discussed. Smith stuttered so pitifully in struggling to answer her, you almost felt sorry for him.

Yet in the face of that absurdity, the session just muddled forward. Smith moved on to the next amendment, as though the purpose of the hearing hadn’t just been exposed as pointless. If Smith is looking for ways to prune inefficiency, he need look no further than his own committee.

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter


Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

Subtle cues from FedEx, Amazon, and others.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

A No-Brainer Approach to Fighting Poverty: Better Birth Control

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 16 2014 11:56 AM Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
Sept. 16 2014 12:22 PM Poverty Rate Falls for First Time Since 2006, Remains Way Too High
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 12:30 PM How Steven Moffat Made the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 12:01 PM More Than 3 Million Told the FCC What They Think About Net Neutrality. Why Hasn't Obama?
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.