COMPETES not dead! And a mea culpa

By Phil Plait | May 19, 2010 6:25 am

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.

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, Politics

Comments (26)

  1. John

    Note, however, that in addition to the stupid porn rider, the length of funding was cut from five years to three under pressure from republicans.

  2. Sir Craig

    The really sad and sorry part of all this is over a hundred Democratic congressmen (and women) lacked the backbone to rake Hall over the coals for this one, vote the wording down, and present the bill as it was meant to be presented.

    I’m glad the bill will finally be voted on, but the contempt I feel for Hall and the spineless Dems mute that appreciation somewhat…

  3. Ray

    So where will the money to pay for this bill come from? We’re already running a trillion-plus dollar deficit. That’s the really sad part.

  4. Teshi

    It’s bizarre this system of attaching totally unrelated bills together as if they all say the same thing.

  5. Richard Wolford

    Ray, science funding comes nowhere near the money used for other projects, and is just a speck compared to funding of the military. Please don’t raise strawmen that have already been beaten down by Phil before.

  6. We’re already running a trillion-plus dollar deficit.

    And a good thing too:

  7. Scott B

    I wish we had some real way to get rid of these useless rules around bills that come from 200 years of bureaucracy rather than anything specified in the Constitution. Things should be as as simple as any Congress man can submit X amount of bills per session. If the House passes it, it goes to the Senate, if they pass it, it goes to the President. If the House or Senate vote it down, that bill is done until the next session. All of these rules do nothing but provide tricks and loopholes for politicians while doing nothing for the people.

    Get rid of these rules, committees, sub-committees, etc. Propose a bill with whatever you want attached to it. Have a review period to understand the bill, if they want. Then vote on it. Done deal.

  8. In case Ray’s question wasn’t rhetorical – we get the money from the defense budget. Our bloated military is a colossal waste of our nation’s resources, and the funding for this bill makes up a tiny, tiny fraction of the defense budget.

    Someday, schools will be fully funded, and the Pentagon will have to hold a bake sale so it can buy weapons.

  9. Scott B


    This bill is a drop in the bucket compared to most. We’ve probably already passed the point of no return anyway. The deficit is closer to $13 trillion now. The really sad part is that we could slash spending to the bone and still probably can’t do anything to catch back up. Balancing the budget is about the best that could be expected, but that doesn’t do anything to actually pay off the deficit. Given that, we really can’t expect politicians that need to be elected next term to force us to face the music now rather than decades from now. People don’t usually vote on their potential best interests in the future. They vote on what’s been done lately. Even your most anti-government, Tea Party supporter still wants the government to pay for the things they agree with, such as our huge military. It’s a flaw in “democracy”. Or at least a flaw with most people that’s reflected in the government we choose. So we’ll keep propping up the house of cards as long as we can.

  10. ToneDeF

    Adding unrelated amendments to proposed legistation sound familiar? Kinda like adding the $1 trillion health care bill to the 2010 budget. I guess what’s good for the goose…

    …basically, both sides play this game and the best answer is to vote them all out!

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Kinda like adding the $1 trillion health care bill to the 2010 budget.

    So? Health care is a part of most nations budget, for good reasons: to take it out would be both extraordinary and complicate things in other ways.

  12. Cheyenne

    Phil – “I’ll note that the shameful language about pornography is still in the bill!”. Well, yeah, of course it is. The Democrats agreed with it before (that’s why they didn’t want to override it and knew they would look bad if they did).

    It’s not a non-sequitur either. The COMPETES act funnels a large amount of money through various agencies. A pretty important one is the NSF. Which, well, has a tiny problem with keeping its people off the triple X’s. Because of that very problem it couldn’t do its job properly.

    “The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency’s inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

    “To manage this dramatic increase without an increase in staff required us to significantly reduce our efforts to investigate grant fraud,” the inspector general recently told Congress in a budget request. “We anticipate a significant decline in investigative recoveries and prosecutions in coming years as a direct result.”

    The budget request doesn’t state the nature or number of the misconduct cases, but records obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act laid bare the extent of the well-publicized porn problem inside the government-backed foundation.”

    And goodness sakes, a lot of people were freaking out over this. The system worked fine, it’s ugly at times, but this bill is going through as it should. Republicans (who always wanted to pass it by the way, the inserted language was capping the growth of the increases) and Democrats worked out a compromise and they’ll pass it.

    edit to add – In the original bill the NSF was slated to oversee $44 billion for 2011-2015.

  13. ToneDeF

    @ 12 Torbjorn Larsson, OM

    My point isn’t about the perceived need for government healthcare, it is about the fact that congress people routinely add riders to bills that serves their interest and not the will of the people. In the case for healtcare reform, Americans were so against it that Massachusets elected a republican senator for the primary reason of being able to block the legislation. (Massachusets electing a repub is almost like Pakistan selecting an Indian Prime minister).

    Still, the dems wanted it and used a different “parlimentary” procedure to get it passed. Regardless if you agree with Healthcare, this is a prime example of how this type of stuff is done routinely.

  14. gss_000

    @14. ToneDeF

    You have no idea about Massachusetts politics. Or did you forget that it voted several Republican govs into office. Will Weld or Mitt Romney ring a bell?

    And the American people were in favor of health care reform and some form of public option. The polls showed people were against the final bill, but many did not think it went far enough. When you add those to those who liked it, it was more than 50%. And by the way, that was made so as not to add to the deficit. In fact, the non partisan CBO found it would save money over time.

    Many of the big bills recently are doing this, trying to work in PAYGO (Pay As You Go) measures. For all conservatives try to say Liberals tax and spend all the time, the recent Republican Congress and President didn’t care about the deficit. You can’t increase spending and reduce taxes like they did and be surprised when you lose the surplus Clinton left.

  15. ToneDeF

    @15 gss_000

    Thanks for citing the exception that proves the rule. The fact that repubs are the rarity in Mass is more my point (and certainly repub senators). Also, the CBO numbers are skewed mainly because congress took out Medicare costs that are now being reintroduced as a separate bill.

    I think this discussion shows how some people have no problem with adding unrelated amendments when it meets their needs but then feign outrage when the other side does the same.

  16. Jim

    Ahh, this just confirms what Will Rogers said many, many years ago. He had been criticized for making jokes about Congress. He replied that he was simply making jokes. But…

    “When Congress makes a joke, it’s a law. And when they make a law, it’s a joke.”

  17. Michel

    As I understand it, you can kill/postpone almost everything with an anti pron thing.
    What a lame way to do politics.

  18. You were wrong and you admitted it shame on you. Don’t you know you have to be absolute right about everything and even if you are wrong you have to carry on like you were right no matter right. For this flipflopping I am thinking of never reading this site again.

    About the deficit most of that is actually is coming from a lot of bills signed by the previous guy in the Whitehouse. He signed a lot of bills which spent but did not bring in much income.

  19. Sili

    Pity that noöne has the guts to attach riders that provide free abortions to every piece of Republan legislation.

  20. “Pity that noöne has the guts to attach riders that provide free abortions to every piece of Republan legislation.”

    The words you are fishing for in your attempt at commentary is “no one” and “Republican.”

  21. jcm

    Off topic:
    GOP legislators complain federal employees watching porn, however, not themselves are able to keep it on their pants: Ind. GOP Rep. Souder says he’ll resign over affair

  22. Kinda like adding the $1 trillion health care bill to the 2010 budget.

    You know, I sometimes long for the good old days when, if you got something wrong, your computer came right back at you and shouted ‘ERROR’. Parsing:

    adding… to the budget

    ERROR: healthcare was primary legislation, not a rider added to anything else (and debated at interminable length, I might add);

    $1 trillion … to the 2010 budget

    ERROR: the $1 trillion refers to a ten year period;

    adding… $1 trillion

    ERROR: in the context of deficit and debt, the trillion wasn’t added: $1 trillion is to be spent on healthcare, and $1 trillion raised to fund it, canceling out.

    Finally, there’s an implied error that your example has anything to do with Phil’s point. Where I live, we call that trolling.

  23. Beryl

    ToneDeF–Your comment just shows how confused Congress gets everyone. Most of health care reform was passed by a straight up-down vote. Minor changes were made in the reconciliation process. For the COMPETES vote, I wonder if the congresscritter offering the amendment even knew how it would play out.


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