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Obama Quiet on STEM Education Bill Approved by Congress

At a press conference late last month, President Obama ticked off a series of legislative accomplishments during Congress' lame-duck session that he deemed noteworthy, from the tax compromise and the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy to the passage of a food safety bill and the ratification of a new START treaty. But he made no mention of one piece of legislation that touches on a topic that by most accounts is near and dear to his heart: STEM education.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate managed to complete work on a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act in December, after the legislation appeared to be stuck in political limbo for several months. For some analysis of the bill's education components and its political journey, see this post and this post from last month.

The president got pretty close to the topic in answering a reporter's question about the state of the economy. In fact, he even uttered the word "compete."

"My singular focus over the next two years is not rescuing the economy from potential disaster, but rather jumpstarting the economy so that we actually start making a dent in the unemployment rate and we are equipping ourselves so that we can compete in the 21st century," he said. "And that means we've got to focus on education, that means we have to focus on research and development, we have to focus on innovation."

He might have continued: "And that's why I'm so pleased that Congress just yesterday completed work on a bill to reauthorize the America COMPETES Act." But, nope, no mention of it.

It makes me wonder if President Obama isn't all that impressed with the bill as approved. After all, the final version was significantly scaled back from what the House passed earlier in the year.

In scanning the White House website, I did come across a blog post from a senior official suggesting the Obama administration does see merit in the package.

John P. Holdren, the president's adviser for science and technology, called passage of the bill a "major milestone on this nation's path to building an innovation economy for the 21st century."

He continued: "COMPETES keeps America on a path of leadership in an ever more competitive world. It authorizes the continued growth of the budgets of three key agencies that are incubating and generating the breakthroughs of tomorrow—the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. COMPETES also bolsters this administration's already groundbreaking activities to enhance STEM education—to raise American students from the middle to the top of the pack and to make sure we are training the next generation of innovative thinkers and doers."

But if President Obama shares Holdren's belief that the bill's passage represents a "major milestone," you'd think he might talk about it publicly. (And to my knowledge, he's made no recent mention of the America COMPETES legislation outside of the Dec. 22 press conference either.)

A blog post from the American Association for the Advancement of Science could help explain why the president hasn't seemed so interested in the legislation. It suggests that even the scaled back Senate bill may not amount to much in the end, given turnover of the House to Republican hands.

"Looming fights over the discretionary budget may make the legislative success a Pyrrhic victory," writes the AAAS's Jeffrey Mervis on ScienceInsider. "The sharply partisan nature of the debate on the House floor this afternoon—only 16 of 146 Republicans supported its passage, along with all 212 Democrats who voted—signaled that the new Republican House leadership won't take kindly to bills that promise large increases in federal spending, no matter how worthy the cause. That attitude bodes ill for the likely impact of COMPETES, which puts Congress on record in support of steady increases in the budgets of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the basic science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology."

In any case, I've gotten no word yet on when President Obama will sign the America COMPETES reauthorization into law. (He has 10 days, excluding Sundays, within which to sign or veto it. It was presented to him on Dec. 28.)

Maybe the White House is planning a big splash. We shall see.

Update (Jan. 5, 12:30pm): President Obama did, in fact, sign the America COMPETES legislation yesterday. He did so with no fanfare. It was one of 35 bills signed into law on Jan. 4. The announcement came in a press release with the list of the bills but no comments.

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