When Congress returns to work next week it will immediately confront legislation left over from last year. Seven major appropriations bills remain stuck in the Senate that would provide FY 2004 funding for science-related programs such as the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Education's Math-Science Partnership Program. The energy policy bill, which contains strong authorization numbers for the DOE Office of Science, is bogged down. Despite one-party control of the House, Senate, and White House, finding the votes to pass these bills has been difficult, and the prognosis is very unclear.
ENERGY POLICY BILL:
A small section of the massive energy policy bill, H.R. 6, establishes multi year authorization levels for DOE's Office of Science. The science authorization levels are largely noncontroversial, as they are not binding on either the president or the appropriators.
The larger energy policy bill is anything but noncontroversial. The product of more than two and one-half years of work since President Bush first announced an energy policy, the bill has had up-and-down prospects because of highly controversial provisions dealing with drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; oil, ethanol, gas, coal, and nuclear energy subsidies; and perhaps now most significantly, a liability waiver for the producers of a fuel additive. This additive, MTBE, while making gasoline combustion cleaner, also pollutes groundwater if it escapes from underground gasoline storage tanks. A filibuster by MTBE opponents has prevented the Senate from voting on the bill. President Bush has asked House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) to drop the provision; DeLay was not persuaded. This legislation has already passed the House.
It is anticipated that Senate Majority Leader Frist (R-TN) will make moves to bring the bill back to the Senate floor in about a month, with another attempt at passage before mid-March. After that date, schedule pressures and the November elections will diminish the chances of the bill's passage. No one knows how all of this will turn out.
Appropriations bills are always referred to "must-pass" bills since they provide the money needed to operate a department or agency. Deciding how much to provide for a program, or whether to fund it at all, has always made on-time passage of the thirteen appropriations bills a difficult feat.
It was predicted that single-party control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue would ensure passage of the FY 2004 bills around the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. That has not happened, with seven of the thirteen bills stuck in the Senate. In an effort to move these bills off Capitol Hill more quickly, they were all combined into an $820 billion "omnibus" bill that the House passed on December 8. A Senate move to pass this bill under "unanimous consent" failed due to a lack of unanimity. Congress then decided to continue funding for the affected agencies at last year's level until the end of this month.
Frist's "plan A" will be finding 60 votes to end debate on the omnibus bill when the Senate reconvenes on January 20. Failing that, "plan B" will be to move toward a bill that will continue last year's level of spending until the start of FY 2005 on October 1. In other words, flat funding over two years for all of the departments and agencies now caught up in the budget standoff. A very large share of the anticipated budget increases are for programs funded by the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill. Whether the anger felt by Democratic senators at being locked out of the negotiations process and their opposition to some of the tacked-on provisions (such as those dealing with gun ownership documentation, media ownership and food product labeling) in the omnibus outweighs their desire to see the increases in social service program spending is yet to be determined. At present, House Republican leaders are refusing to open the omnibus bill to any changes.
If plan B is adopted, the budgetary losses to the affected S&T programs would vary. The National Science Foundation's 5.0% agreed- upon increase would disappear, as would the 3.2% increase for the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. The 48.5% increase for the Department of Education's Math and Science Partnership would be eliminated. NASA's programs would fare both positively and negatively, as some programs that would be slated for reductions would be spared, while other program increases would be lost. An 11.8% reduction for NIST would apparently be shelved. Most Capitol Hill observers are predicting that this is going to be a very tough year. Cooperation between the two parties appears to be at an all-time low. Budgetary pressures seem to be greater than in recent memory. And this fall promises another bitter election as both parties struggle for the control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.