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AAAS Leadership Seminar Profiles a Rare Success Story for Bipartisan Cooperation
Louis Finkel and Kathryn Clay
[Photograph courtesy of Harvey Leifert]
Bipartisan cooperation, close consultation with the scientific and business communities—it's not a story line that emerges very often from the polarized political climate of Washington, D.C. But in a presentation at the AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, two influential congressional staff members described passage of the America COMPETES Act earlier this year as one of the remarkable successes in recent political history.
The bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush earlier this year, authorizes $33.6 billion in funding to increase research and advance innovation and science-education initiatives in key federal agencies. What made it unusual, said Kathryn Clay and Louis A. Finkel, was its unusually harmonious path from bill to law.
"One of the best untold stories about this Congress, and about Congress in general, is the enactment of [America] COMPETES," Finkel, a Democrat, told the seminar participants on 14 November. It demonstrated that Congress can do what the American public expects of it, "setting aside petty partisan differences, transcending partisan ideology, and working together for the greater good."
Finkel directs policy and outreach for the House Committee on Science and Technology, a post he took following several years in the private sector representing the interests of educational institutions, nonprofits, and technology and energy companies. Clay, a Republican on the staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, worked on the America COMPETES legislation in the 109th Congress, when Republicans were in the majority, and this year in the 110th Congress, with Democrats in the majority.
America COMPETES, an acronym for America Creating Opportunities To Meaningfully Promote Excellence In Technology, Education, And Science, became law on 9 August. The law provides a doubling of basic research funds over several years and support for improved teaching of science and mathematics, along with other provisions intended to increase American scientific and technological competitiveness.
Clay said that America COMPETES began with a request from senators to the National Academies, seeking 10 suggestions for federal government actions to advance American technology. The Academies quickly responded with a list of 20 ideas, she said, in a report called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The Senate also took into account a second report, "Innovate America," from the Council on Competitiveness.
Action in the Senate was slow, however, as three committees were involved, and then control of both houses of Congress passed from the Republicans to the Democrats after the 2006 elections. The America COMPETES bill was reintroduced this year with no changes to the text, which Clay said was highly unusual and testimony to its bipartisan nature and support.
From the beginning, Finkel said in response to a question, various groups presented Congress their concerns about American competitiveness. Once the National Academies "Gathering Storm" report was issued, many organizations beyond the scientific community expressed their strong support for the proposed legislation. Clay added that the Academies report could be issued quickly, because it built on 10 years of input from stakeholders. There was quick agreement on what the most important issues were. The report did not put forward any groundbreaking suggestions, said Finkel, but the Academies "packaged it together in such a way that it gave us a really easy roadmap to move forward."
This was not the first time Congress had looked at these issues, and Clay said that it was not immediately apparent that this effort would succeed where others had failed. Other reports in the past simply had not galvanized the scientific or policy communities the way this one did. The success of "The Gathering Storm" in leading to America COMPETES was in part serendipity, she said. To a degree, added Finkel, it was a ripening of the issues, in particular advances in science and technology education abroad, along with outsourcing of technological work from the U.S. to China, India and other countries.
Asked how strong bipartisanship came to be regarding America COMPETES in an otherwise sharply polarized Congress, Finkel credited effective leadership in both parties. He said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had offered a policy paper on innovation in the previous Congress that was similar to America COMPETES. She "was beating us every day, saying, 'Get something done, get something done,'" he recalled.
The Science and Technology Committee has never been polarized in the way that the Judiciary Committee traditionally has been, Finkel continued. "It is a very bipartisan, cooperative, collegial committee, so it allowed us to work in a very bipartisan way," he explained. When a committee passes a bill unanimously and the Speaker is already invested in it, as was the case with America COMPETES, he added, that markedly improves its chances for success.
Further, the House had partners in the Senate who were equally desirous of passing the bill, Finkel said. Clay agreed, and illustrated with a story:
During the two-and-a-half years following publication of "Gathering Storm," Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), asked Clay every time they met, "Where's our bill?" (Domenici was then Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; he is currently Ranking Republican on the committee.) He asked the question no matter the actual topic of the meeting, and while he could have been talking about any number of bills, Clay said, "I knew which bill he meant--what became the America COMPETES bill." He always responded that progress was too slow, she added, until the day she could say, "Sir, it is on the president's desk."
Leading business-oriented organizations provided strong support for America COMPETES, complementing that from the scientific, Finkel said. He singled out the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers, all of which are Republican-leaning.
Clay and Finkel were asked whether the good feeling that existed in Congress on America COMPETES might carry over to other issues, such as climate change. Could consensus be reached on legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, for example? Both speakers responded that it was not likely soon.
Clay noted that the business community has become more engaged on the issue, and some were pushing for action now, fearing that much tougher laws might be enacted in 2009, if Democrats win the White House next year and retain control of Congress. For the same reason, environmentalists are now going slowly, preferring to wait until 2009.
Finkel agreed. Having been a lobbyist for ExxonMobil before returning to the House staff, he said, he thought that automobile companies might reluctantly accept a new CAFE (average mileage of all of their passenger vehicles) goal of 35 miles per gallon, reached over some years, in 2008, for fear that a Democratic White House and Congress in 2009 might impose 40 m.p.g.
On bipartisanship, Finkel said there is no longer any rancor on the subject of human impact on climate. "I think there is a far more broad consensus that the climate is changing and that we've caused it." The issue, he said, "is no longer, 'Yes it is,' 'No, it's not.' It's, 'What are we going to do about it?' And I think that that shift rather dramatically changes the debate." Now, the debate is over tradeoffs and balance, and some action is likely, if not in this Congress, then surely in the next, he said.
One of the European participants in the AAAS seminar remarked afterward that it was striking to him that neither Clay nor Finkel had mentioned the White House or its Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as having played any role in the development of America COMPETES. In the European Union, he said, the European Commission (the executive branch) would have developed the legislation and presented it to the European Parliament for passage. He had attended the seminar to learn how the American government works regarding science and technology, he said, and found the session eye-opening.
18 December 2007