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America DRIFTS: Fiddling While the Nation Stagnates on Innovation

Recently we have noted here and here that the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act--one of the nation's key vehicles for keeping the nation competitive--seemed to be proceeding well, with the addition of several important updates, including language embracing the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Hubs, a related pilot for clean energy regional consortia, and a new regional innovation clusters title.

Well, we spoke too soon. Hours after an amendment to add the Regional Energy Innovation Consortia program to the America COMPETES Act as a pilot program passed on the floor of the House by an encouraging vote of 254-173, a mischievous amendment that linked a hard-to-vote-against ban on federal salaries going to workers who look at pornography on government computers to major cuts in the bill prevailed and has now thrown the whole bill into uncertainty.

Thanks to the amendment by Ranking House Science & Technology Committee Member Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), Science & Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has at least for now had to yank a bill that has now been shorn of the needed hubs, consortia, and clusters elements as well as critical funding increases for core innovation agencies.

So much for Congress responding with laser-like focus to America’s slipping competiveness on innovation issues. (Which Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has documented here).

As to what now, hopefully reconstituted legislation is going to be brought back again this week or soon. But for today, it is worth noting that last week’s game-playing and partisanship represent a disturbing sign of the times that we need to pull back from.

In 2007, after all, the House passed the original version of America COMPETES by unanimous consent in less than hour, and for much of the intervening time innovation investments--while not being adequately funded in key areas like energy, engineering, or the physical sciences--have not been significantly divisive. To now have partisan differences over basic R&D funding issues and technology commercialization arising at moment of national slippage, therefore, is downright scary. Such divides and the delays and gridlock that result represent drift, pure and simple, and will cause further slippage in relation to our fiercer competitors.

Let’s not go there. Let’s continue a solid tradition of bipartisan support for innovation and reauthorize one of the nation’s signal vehicles for driving innovation in the original innovation nation.