Advanced Manufacturing Proves to be Political Sweet Spot
Last week’s 1600-page bill to finance the U.S. government through September 2015 contains a section creating a network of research institutes aimed at strengthening U.S. manufacturing. It also requires the government to draw up a national manufacturing strategy that would be reviewed every 4 years. The idea of allowing government to help repair this former cornerstone of the U.S. economy was once derided as industrial policy by many Republicans. But now it’s entered the political mainstream.
That’s good news for Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL), a leading advocate of the manufacturing initiative. Its inclusion in the massive spending bill also validates his faith in the adage about politics being the art of the possible.
“I think it’s a big victory,” Lipinski tells ScienceInsider. “Were this 4 years ago, I would not have thought that. But you have to remember where we are now. Given how few things get done around here with respect to science and advanced manufacturing, I’m very pleased with how things ended up.”
In February 2010, Lipinski introduced a bill to create a national manufacturing strategy and provide for a regular assessment. Five months later it sailed through the House of Representatives, then controlled by his Democratic colleagues, before dying in the Senate. But in November House Republicans stormed back into power, and Lipinski’s party was pushed into the minority. Although he reintroduced his bill in the next Congress, it went nowhere.
But Lipinski didn’t give up. In June 2013, he tried for a third time. By then his ideas had begun to resonate with some powerful friends.
The previous summer President Barack Obama had taken executive action to create the first of what was envisioned as a $1 billion, 15-center network of advanced manufacturing institutes. Manufacturing is a key plank in the administration’s economic recovery plan, and in January 2013 Obama used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to adopt a host of measures, including measures Lipinski had been advocating.
Fortunately for Lipinski, by then congressional Republicans had begun to see the issue as a boon for their party, too. But funding such an ambitious network of research centers remained a sticking point. So a deal was hatched: Authorize the network, but pay for it largely with money already being spent on a network of clean energy manufacturing centers. In August 2013, a bipartisan group of legislators led by representatives Tom Reed (R–NY) and Joe Kennedy (D–MA) introduced such a bill (H.R. 2996).
The House science committee had already held two recent hearings on advanced manufacturing, including one that examined Lipinski’s bill, and H.R. 2996 provided a legislative vehicle for the panel’s chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), to take action. In December 2013, the committee held a hearing on the bill, and in July it adopted a revised version of the legislation that also contained Lipinski’s provisions. In September the House passed H.R. 2996 by a voice vote.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers had unveiled a companion bill the same day the Reed–Kennedy legislation was introduced. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee reported out the bill favorably in August 2014, but the Senate failed to vote on it before recessing for the November election.
Both the House and Senate bills gave authority to the Commerce Department to spend $300 million to stand up four or more research centers for manufacturing innovation. But the two bodies differed on where most of the money should come from. The House bill specified that the Energy Department would tap $250 million over 10 years from an existing program within its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. In contrast, the Senate bill authorized a new pot of money. Both bills also gave the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) $5 million a year to run a national program office to coordinate manufacturing activities across the government.
The funding impasse remained as Congress reconvened in mid-November to take up a must-pass bill to fund the government for the rest of the 2015 fiscal year. Legislators kept a tight lid on the closed-door negotiations, waiting until 9 December to unveil what turned out to be the final version.
Some of its provisions caused a revolt among either conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats that nearly triggered a government-wide shutdown. But the language on advanced manufacturing caused barely a ripple: The House version of funding the network prevailed, and any Democrats who favored the Senate approach held their tongues, regarding half a loaf as better than nothing. Lipinski counts himself among that group.
“Yes, it surprised me a bit” to see his handiwork show up in the spending bill, Lipinski said last week. “But I was more surprised when we got it through the House on a voice vote [in September]. It showed that there was strong Republican support.”
“Now, the fact that the Senate was also in favor, and that it’s a priority for the administration, is great,” Lipinski went on. “But to be honest, I didn’t want to say that during the House debate because I thought it would scare off some of the Republicans. But I have to hand it to Chairman Smith. He worked hard to get it to the House floor, in a form that he thought had the best chance of passage.”
But Smith, who emphasized during the House debate that the new network would not add to federal spending, didn’t stop there. He persuaded the House leadership that advanced manufacturing belonged in the final 2015 spending bill, even though it is really more of an authorization than an appropriations bill. That’s a formal way of saying that it gives Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz the authority to transfer funds to the Commerce Department but doesn’t require him to do so. “I think [that spending authority] is likely to be used by this administration,” says Stephen Ezell, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for a strong national innovation policy that would include a network of manufacturing centers and an aggressive federal strategy. NIST is already playing a leading role in providing the type of coordination required in the legislation, Ezell points out. “The key is that industry has a chance to be at the table when decisions are being made about what areas should be funded,” he adds.
Lipinski acknowledges that additional money for centers would have been nice. But he points to one big advantage in having the manufacturing initiative come into being as an authorization.
“Would I have preferred an appropriation? Yes,” he says. “But remember, an appropriations bill lasts only for that year, while this bill says that Congress approves of taking this approach for the next 5 years. In effect we’ve given the administration a green light do what it already wants to do. And if Republicans try to object next year, we can say that Congress has given its blessing to the idea.”
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