Dueling Updates on NSF Reauthorization Bills; Legislation’s Progression Uncertain

Dueling updates this week about legislation reorganizing and reauthorizing the National Science Foundation provided only contradictory views of the bills’ future.

Regular readers will recall that the Senate-passed United States Innovation & Competitiveness Act (USICA) contains the Endless Frontier Act (EFA), a major reorganization of the National Science Foundation. It includes large funding authorizations for NSF, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), among other provisions. The legislation passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis back in June.

On Monday, Senator Schumer (D-NY), Majority Leader of the Senate and one of the original sponsors of USICA and EFA, announced that he secured an agreement that would add USICA to the yearly, must-pass defense policy bill in a package of bipartisan amendments. This would have assured that USICA would move when the defense bill progressed in the Senate. But that’s not how it played out.

Wednesday evening, after opposition to including USICA in the defense bill arose from Senate Republicans, Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement saying they had agreed to conference the competing Senate and House NSF legislation directly, without using the defense policy bill as a legislative vehicle. No timeline or plan for accomplishing this was included in their statement.

If you, dear reader, feel like you experienced whiplash reading these paragraphs, that is to be expected.

The progression of the NSF legislation this calendar year is now in doubt. The appeal of attaching USICA to the defense policy bill is that it is must-pass legislation; without that vehicle, it’s not a given USICA will move by itself. It’s also easier for Senate Republicans to filibuster final passage of a standalone bill, in order to deny a legislative victory to Congressional Democrats and the Biden Administration.

But this also creates a conferencing problem in that the House’s legislation, the NSF for the Future Act and the DOE Science for the Future Act, only cover reauthorizing NSF and the DOE research programs; USICA covers many more topics that the House has not considered. Democratic House leaders have repeatedly said they would prefer to pass a China competitiveness bill/NSF reauthorization separate from the defense policy bill; they now have their wish, though it’s unclear if that’s good.

CRA endorsed the NSF for the Future Act when it was introduced in May.

Ultimately, progression of USICA and the two House bills are now in doubt. Given how many major legislative matters Congress has to deal with in the month and a half remaining in the year, will drawn-out negotiations on a non-urgent policy matter be high on Congressional leaders’ to-do list? Likely this will be pushed into 2022; the deadline for passing anything, using the present legislation, would be the end of 2022 (ie: the end of the 117th Congress). Otherwise, the legislative process for both bills would need to be restarted. The one saving grace of this is that both Senate and House bills are bipartisan; there is a real view among Congressional leaders that the nation’s research enterprise needs attention. It’s just a question about when it will be addressed. This situation is still fluid, with new updates possible, please check back for more information.

Dueling Updates on NSF Reauthorization Bills; Legislation’s Progression Uncertain