“We have also prioritized the work the Department of Justice is doing in enforcing our laws. We have made sure that scientific research, space exploration are prioritized, and America will preserve its leadership in the world in space exploration. We have made sure that weather forecasting is funded and taken care of” said Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) when describing his FY 2016 funding bill on the House floor.
Culberson’s remarks Tuesday came as the House started its consideration of the $51.4 billion bill that was passed the next day by a vote of 242-183. Many amendments were offered to this expansive bill, although none pertaining to NASA or the National Science Foundation. At the conclusion of the House’s deliberations the amounts provided for NASA, NIST, NOAA and NSF remained unchanged from those in the committee’s report.
There was the expected debate about the bill’s total funding level that was $1.3 billion over this year’s total, but $661 million below that requested by the Obama Administration. Culberson explained “The President's [total FY 2016] budget assumed a number of tax increases and fee increases that are simply not going to happen.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) viewed it differently: “the majority has an absolute view about the budget allocations, given the Budget Control Act, and see that as something that limits our ability to meet the challenges of our great Nation. The minority has the view that we need to move away from that budget control agreement and move away from these automatic caps and meet the needs, as the Constitution indicated that the Appropriations Committee's job was to meet the needs of our great Nation. We know that there are needs that are not going to be met.” Culberson later responded: “We in the majority have done our very best to make sure that we are living within our means. . . . I know there is a great deal of frustration among my Democrat colleagues on the limitations on spending. That is the law that was suggested initially by the White House.”
The first day’s debate gave Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee an opportunity to reiterate points made during their consideration of the America COMPETES reauthorization bill. Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) criticized “arbitrary and ideologically driven cuts” to NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) and Geosciences Directorates, “significant cuts” to NOAA’s budget, “and “deep cuts” to NASA’s Earth Science program. Committee member Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) focused on the reduction to SBE funding that currently receives 3.7 percent of the foundation’s budget.
Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) thanked Culberson and his staff for working with the Science Committee staff, and “for prioritizing the funding of basic research” at NSF. “This research, especially in the areas of math and physical sciences, biology, computing and engineering, holds the promise of breakthroughs that will trigger technological innovation, jumpstart new industries and spur economic growth,” Smith said. Appreciation was also expressed by Smith for the reprioritization of NASA’s Planetary Science program that reflected Smith’s authorization bill for the space agency.
Members offered numerous amendments regarding NIST and NOAA to highlight an issue. Most of these amendments were ultimately withdrawn; those passing made minor changes in program funding levels.
Discussion of these amendments provided insight into the bill’s handling of NOAA’s programs. Culberson explained: “In an era of scarce resources we have funded NOAA with a record level of funding for weather forecasting. We have made sure they have got all the money they need for maritime safety and for supporting and monitoring America's fisheries. We have made sure in this bill that NOAA is focusing on their core function, and that is looking to the future. That, of course, is going to involve looking at climate. But over the past several years climate funding within NOAA has received more than adequate funding, and we have to use the scarce, very precious, hard-earned taxpayer dollars that we are entrusted to appropriate very carefully. We have to prioritize that funding, and within this bill, we have chosen to prioritize weather forecasting.”
During the debate Smith offered a NOAA amendment that was accepted by voice vote. Smith said that it “directs that the full $120 million authorized in House-passed H.R. 1561, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, be provided in the NOAA Operations, Research, and Facilities appropriation account. . . . Specifically, this amendment will provide $5 million more for weather lab research in NOAA, to total the $80 million authorized. The amendment will also provide $16 million more for weather research technology transfer in NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, to total $20 million authorized to implement a labs and Cooperative Institutes research-to-operations program. This program will improve the understanding of how the public responds to warnings and transfer new technology to the National Weather Service, the American weather industry, and the academic partners.”
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) later engaged in a discussion with Culberson about the designation of $9 million of NOAA’s appropriation for a pilot program to encourage space-based commercial weather data as was authorized in another House-passed bill, H.R. 1561. Culberson responded “NOAA should work with the private sector when data is available. It is cost effective and can save the taxpayers money.” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) spoke for several minutes on the importance of the Administration’s request of $380 million for a polar follow-on program for the next generation of weather satellites. She withdrew her amendment to restore $300 million of that funding because she could not identify an offsetting cut to another program.
The lack of sufficient funding has always made the appropriations process difficult. Essentially flat funding for all domestic programs in FY 2016 makes this process even more troublesome this year. During the debate Culberson told his colleagues “As more money becomes available, if we find an opportunity as we move through [a House-Senate appropriations] conference, of course, we will work hard to make sure that we will plus-up funding for the sciences and space exploration everywhere we can.” This week the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Committee meets to write its own version of this bill, operating under the same tight constraints. Unless the Obama Administration and Congress can strike an overall budget agreement that additional money is unlikely to become available.