Funding Provisions in the House Democrats' America COMPETES Proposal

Proposed funding levels reflect lowered expectations from the early days of America COMPETES.

Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee recently released a discussion draft of the 2013 America COMPETES Act reauthorization (also see an interview by Science Insider with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking committee member). Congress has passed the America COMPETES Act twice before, in 2007 and 2010, with the goal of boosting American innovation. The first time around, the legislation was a result of growing interest and concerns over competitiveness, following the National Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm report and President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative (see this 2009 Congressional Research Service report on the first COMPETES Act for in-depth background). While the 2007 version enjoyed strong support, the 2010 reauthorization was a bit more contentious. Congress is now due to again reauthorize the legislation, and the latest round could be the most contentious yet.

The bill is intended to achieve many things, but one important element of COMPETES has been funding authorizations for some key R&D agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy's Office of Science (DOE SC), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) within the Department of Commerce. Authorizations do not provide actual funding, but they do provide targets for appropriators. Over the past two iterations of COMPETES, those funding targets have become less ambitious as fiscal challenges and partisan polarization has grown (see chart).

Following the Academies' recommendation, the 2007 COMPETES bill established a 7-year budget doubling target for the three agencies mentioned, authorizing annual funding increases of around 10 percent through FY 2010. Ultimately the Bush Administration chose to pursue a somewhat more modest but still very ambitious 10-year doubling path in its budget requests. For a time appropriations nearly kept up with this pace, but in 2010 things changed, and as federal R&D entered a period of recent cuts, Congress passed the 2010 COMPETES bill with targets adding up to an 11-year doubling path from 2006. The current Democratic proposal would allow agency budget growth leading to a doubling from 2006 levels by roughly 2022, 16 years after the original vision in 2006, and nine years from today. Annual funding increases would average nearly five percent.

Even as the spending targets between the 2007 and 2010 bills were lowered, actual appropriations slipped even further, as shown below (note the below charts include the three agencies mentioned above plus ARPA-E, which is also included in the funding authorizations but did not exist as an agency prior to 2009). Over the three-year period the 2010 COMPETES authorizations were in effect, appropriations for these four agencies fell a combined $6.0 billion below the targets. Sequestration probably accounted for somewhat less than $1 billion of this total.

Though the Democratic proposal continues the trend of declining targets, it's also entirely understandable given the recent realities of appropriations. In truth, the Democratic plan is far more ambitious than what we might expect to see under the current post-sequester spending caps, which allow discretionary spending to grow just slightly faster than inflation. Comparing the two trendlines leads to a gap of $11.1 billion in funding for our four agencies. Of course, Congress has the power to lift or reallocate those spending caps, which would help close the gap. The Democratic proposal is also likely more ambitious than what we'll see in the House majority's own proposal for COMPETES, yet to be issued.

Lastly, we can also see how the Democratic budget numbers stack up against GDP growth (see below; GDP figures and projections come from OMB). Federal R&D as a share of GDP has been declining for decades, and what's interesting here is that the Democratic proposal — unrealistic though it may be in these times of shutdown and sequester — is actually what may be necessary just to keep agency budgets steady as a share of the economy. The downward trend for R&D under the post-sequester spending caps is unsurprising, given CBO's conclusion that nondefense discretionary spending will be pushed to historical lows if the caps remain in place.

As mentioned, the Republican authorization proposals promise to be at least somewhat lower than these targets. We'll update these tables when those proposals are released.