[Editor’s Note: CRA’s new Tisdale Policy Fellow for Summer 2022, Dalton Hellwege, contributed to this post.]
When we last left the NSF reauthorization legislation in early February, the House of Representatives had just introduced and passed the America COMPETES Act of 2022. We had expected this legislation to head rapidly into a conferencing process with the Senate’s US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), where a compromise bill would be hammered out. Unfortunately, the process has been much slower to progress than expected and has all but ground to a halt. For example, members of the conference committee weren’t announced until April. And now the legislation appears to be falling prey to more pressing political topics, such as gun control, and political calculations with an eye toward the approaching Midterm Elections.
The conference committee did hold a public “kickoff” meeting in mid-May where all 107 members of the committee were given two minutes to provide a statement on their views and priorities with this legislation. The meeting was led by the conference committee chair, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA). In her opening statement, Cantwell said, “we know that R&D is less than 1 percent of our gross domestic product invested in federal research compared to 2 percent in the ’60s. That 2 percent kept us competitive with innovations from DARPA, NASA, DOE, NSF and helped us to win the Cold War. But today, we are losing ground in a number of areas, semiconductors, artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals, energy revolution.”
Other champions of NSF and scientific research had a chance to speak at the event. Both the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Frank Lucas (R-OK), spoke in the favor of the research provisions in the legislation and advocated for NSF. Chairwoman Johnson said, “it is time for us to revitalize federal support for the kinds of research and development initiatives that have long made the U.S. a beacon of excellence in science and innovation.” Rep. Lucas was critical of the process that produced the COMPETES Act legislation but was in favor of the scientific research sections: “I’m committed in good faith towards a bill that strengthens American science and technology and protects our threats from Chinese leadership.” All in all, a majority of the conferees were supportive of the legislation and spoke of its importance to the nation.
However, the conference committee has taken few public actions since this kickoff event. That likely means that the horse-trading process (i.e.: seeing what provisions of the two bills will be cut, retained, and/or modified in order to get enough votes for passage of the legislation) has begun behind closed doors. Unfortunately, that makes gauging the prospects for advancement difficult. An agreement could be struck very quickly if there is enough support to get something done. Or it can get bogged down in negotiations and be delayed.
There are two reasons the legislation could get held up. The first is that it falls prey to more pressing matters, such as the before mentioned gun-control legislation. Congress only has so many days it can vote on matters. And since this is not must-pass legislation, it lacks the extra push a deadline can provide. The other reason for a delay is political: Republicans view the coming November Midterm elections as very favorable to them, so why give Congressional Democrats a legislative win? Especially on a matter that could be handle after the election (or even next year, when Congressional Republicans could craft their own legislation).
There is also mounting criticism that the White House should be more involved in getting a bill passed. But that is a double-edged sword; if President Biden pushes too much for a bill, Republicans could balk at the idea of appearing to work too closely with a Democratic President just before facing voters.
The unfortunate reality is we won’t know more until it happens. We’ll keep our ears to the ground and report any new developments; please keep checking back for updates.