Vacations matter


It’s never taught in high school civics classes, but vacations play important roles in the legislative process on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress seem more willing to compromise on bills right before Congressional recesses than they may have been in the months before. Elected officials want to be able to tell their constituents all the “good things” they have supported and the “bad things” they have opposed while meeting with them back home. Congressional staff is also motivated since staff can only take vacations during recesses. 

Such is the case with the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), legislation that would significantly change federal science policy. USICA had been making its way through the twists and turns of the legislative process since August of 2021 and had been discussed in Congress for even longer. During that time, it gained support from both parties in both the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

A conference committee of House and Senate members had been working for weeks to iron out the differences1 between the House and Senate versions of the bill but had been making little progress. There had been significant support for USICA by Senate Republicans. Yet, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he would not allow the Senate to adopt a final version of USICA if Senate Democrats also passed a bill addressing the several domestic and economic policies championed by Democrats. Some provisions rumored to be in that bill included climate change-related policies, changes in tax policy, and legislative efforts to reduce the costs of pharmaceuticals. It looked like USICA was dead.

One of the provisions in the Senate USICA bill was legislation to address the shortage of computer chips that has been slowing the production of most electronic equipment. The original provision would have subsidized the semiconductor industry in the United States, including establishing a U.S.-based semiconductor facility that would have addressed the chip shortage and created jobs. If USICA failed, the semiconductor industry hinted it would take its investments, and jobs, to other countries.

With only about 10 days before the August Congressional recess, when members of Congress would spend most of the month in their home districts and states meeting with constituents, eyes began to open. Agreement was quickly reached in the Senate that a bill addressing the semiconductor crisis could be passed. Members of the House and Senate who had been working on USICA successfully argued to their colleagues that the provisions that the conference committee had agreed to should be included in the chip bill.

As July ended and the with August recess looming, Congress finally approved a USICA-like bill, although it has been renamed the CHIPS and Science Act. CHIPS and Science checks many of the boxes from the original bills. The core of the bill is $52 billion in R&D and manufacturing for the semiconductor industry. It also establishes a new Directorate of Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The TIP Directorate was the impetus for the original legislation2, ultimately referred to as USICA.

CHIPS and Science recommends annual budget increases of $4 billion for the next four years for the NSF but does not actually provide the funding for the increases. It does mandate significant increases in Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a program that currently sets aside 12% of the NSF budget to be directed to states with limited science presence. USICA called for an immediate increase to 20% of the NSF budget, but CHIPS and Science calls for a slow increase to 15.5% after seven years.

There has always been tension between scientific freedom and the protection of national security, and dealing with that tension has been contentious from the beginning of debate on USICA. The original House bill seemed to take a responsible approach to the difficult topic. However, this was one of many areas in which the Senate version of USICA went overboard. The Senate bill would have implemented a wide array of severe limitations on scientific collaboration with foreign scientists, particularly Chinese scientists, including the ability to deny U.S. visas and making it a federal crime to fail to disclose the receipt of funding from other countries. The CHIPS and Science bill establishes a government-wide ban on federal grant recipients participating in talent programs by other countries. It requires the NSF to maintain a Research Security and Policy Office to help identify security risks, provide outreach and education to the scientific community, and establish policy and procedures on research security. The bill also establishes requirements that will demand the disclosure of financial support from other nations.

Dealing with real or assumed security threats was one of several topics of concern the ASCB raised in its letter3 to the leadership of the House of Representatives at the start of its negotiations with the Senate.




About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: