March/April 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 3

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Coburn Amendment Restricts NSF Political Science Funding

Howard Silver, COSSA Executive Director*

Four years after he attempted to eliminate funding for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) political science program, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) tried again with an amendment to H.R. 933, which funded the government for the rest of FY 2013.

Although his original intention to abolish NSF’s $10 million political science funding and redistribute $7 million of it to the National Cancer Institute did not succeed, Coburn managed to have the Democratic leadership accept a “modified” version of the amendment that restricts the projects the political science program can fund.

The new version allows NSF funding for political science projects only if the Foundation’s Director certifies in writing that the project is “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Any unobligated funds from the political science program may be provided for other scientific research and studies that do not duplicate those being funded by other Federal agencies. This appeared to satisfy the Senator from Oklahoma who has criticized studies of Congress and voting behavior for years.

What Happened?

Four years ago, Coburn’s amendment lost by a vote of 62-36. With significant advocacy by COSSA, the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Midwest Political Science Association, the Association of American Universities, the American Public and Land-grant Colleges and Universities, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and many individual university government relations representatives, the thinking was that Coburn could be beaten again.

That was not how Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) saw it. Mikulski was shepherding the spending bill and was concerned about trying to get it through the Senate and back to the House before Congress left for its Easter/Passover two-week break on March 22 and before the Continuing Resolution expired on March 27, which would create a government shutdown.

Senators had introduced over 110 amendments to the bill. By March 14, the Senate had voted on only a handful. Expressing his disappointment that the Senate was moving slowly, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) asked staff to work to reduce the amendment load on the weekend of March 16-17. Mikulski and Coburn appeared to have reached some agreement on the “modified” amendment.

On Tuesday, March 19, Reid, fed up with continuing delays, invoked cloture on the bill and got enough Republican votes to meet the 60-vote threshold and bring regular debate to a close. That still left 30 hours on the clock for post-cloture maneuvering, including the consideration of some amendments. After initially announcing that only three amendments would be voted on at 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday, March 20, none of them from Coburn, suddenly there was another delay. Reid then announced that at 2 p.m. that day there would be votes on amendments, including four from Coburn, one of which was the NSF political science provision. Coburn would need 60 votes to succeed.

The first two of Coburn’s amendments went down to defeat on roll call votes. When the NSF amendment came up Mikulski announced that she had agreed to accept the amendment and called for a voice vote. The amendment passed. Not one Senator spoke against it or defended political science or NSF’s merit review process for selecting grants. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) issued a statement deploring Coburn’s amendment the day after.

Why Did It Happen?

Coburn succeeded in 2013 where he failed in 2009 because he was able to take advantage of a need to speedily pass legislation. Reid and Mikulski were concerned that he could have held up the bill for another 30 hours. Senators were told that the provision was a “do nothing” amendment that would not harm NSF and therefore there was no need to vote against it or even have a vote.

Perhaps, Coburn threatened to go back to his original amendment and force Democrats to vote against cancer research. Of course, when earlier in the week Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) proposed an amendment to increase National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) budget by $211 million rather than a paltry $7 million, Coburn voted against it. When he had the chance in the final vote to pass the bill to fund NIH at over $31 billion, he voted against that too. Yet the Senator from Oklahoma gets away with these votes and perceives of himself as a great friend of NIH. However, if Democrats voted against cancer research to continue funding NSF’s political science program, that would have created an opening for 30-second ads in their next campaign on how they voted against a cure for cancer.

What Happens Now?

So far reactions to Coburn’s amendment have come from a strong statement issued by APSA, calling it “a devastating blow to the integrity of the scientific process at the National Science Foundation” and declaring that it “makes all scientific research vulnerable to the whims of political pressure; “New York Times columnist David Brooks called the Coburn amendment “weird” on the March 22 PBS Newshour, and the blogosphere has been full of commentary. No statements have been issued from the august National Science Board, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, or any other scientific association deploring Coburn and the Senate for accepting the amendment

Reports are beginning to surface that NSF is informing grantees that their funding has been held up because of the subject matter of their projects. How NSF interprets the amendment is paramount. With an Acting Director and within a few months a new permanent director, NSF’s incentive to risk offending Coburn by a broad interpretation of the restrictive language is not high.

Does this mean the American National Election Study, a special Coburn target for many years, is now endangered? Political scientists and their friends will have to figure out a way to frame the study within the new rules.

We now move onto FY 2014 where the dangers to not only political science, but to all NSF support for the social, behavioral and economic sciences is in the sights of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA)  and the House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The vehicle may be the reauthorization of the America COMPETES bill, which includes NSF. It may also take the form of an amendment to the FY 2014 appropriations bill in the House and a return engagement from Coburn in the Senate.

In 1983, Congress eliminated NSF’s Science Education programs only to restore them a year later, and now science education is a major focus of attention and federal funding. Perhaps, this is the precedent political science should look forward to emulating as we contemplate the future ahead.

*This article originally appeared in the March 25, 2013, COSSA Washington Update.

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