There are few occasions when Members of Congress publicly must make
a clear choice between funding for basic science and technology and
other domestic programs. Such an opportunity arose during House
action on H.R. 2099, the VA, HUD, Independent Agencies
Appropriations bill for FY 1996 (see FYI #113.)
During consideration of this legislation on July 31, Rep. John
Ensign, a Republican freshman representing Nevada's 1st District
(Las Vegas), offered an amendment to increase the VA medical care
appropriation by reducing the NSF and NASA appropriations. After
fifteen minutes of debate the House rejected this amendment by more
than a two-to-one margin, voting 121-296 against it. This bill is
now pending before the Senate VA, HUD, Independent Agencies
Appropriations Subcommittee chaired by Senator Christopher Bond
Under this amendment, the FY 1996 Veterans Health Administration
appropriation would have increased by $267 million over that amount
provided in H.R. 2099. This increase would have been offset by a
$235 million decrease in the National Science Foundation's Research
and Related Activities appropriation and an $89.5 million reduction
in NASA's Human Space Flight program.
Of the 417 Members voting, 29% voted in favor of the Ensign
amendment. Among Republicans, 20% voted yes; 40% of Democrats
supported this amendment.
Ensign opened the debate stating, "I offer my amendment to ensure
that we keep the promises made to our veterans." He described a
$184 million gap between the recommended VA health care
appropriation and the administration's request, which would be
closed by his amendment. Ensign continued, "Surely, when veterans
are facing the prospect of losing access to health care, the NSF
can take a 10-percent cut." Regarding NASA, he stated, "we are
talking about a very small reduction in NASA's $13.67 billion
allotment," calling it "reasonable middle ground."
Five Members spoke in opposition to the Ensign amendment. VA, HUD
appropriations subcommittee chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) said the
amendment would umbalance the bill, and predicted the proposed NSF
cut would have "a dramatic and negative impact." House Science
Committee Chairman Bob Walker (R-PA) was stronger in his criticism
of the NSF reduction, stating: "we have commitments that are very,
very important in science. There are many of these science
researchers that over the years also feel that they have a
commitment to making certain that we keep this Nation economically
strong by having a good basic science base. This particular
amendment will cut into that basic science base; this is one of the
worst places that we can possibly find to cut programs in the
entire VA-HUD budget."
Rep. George Brown (D-CA) joined in criticizing the amendment,
calling it "ill-advised." He added, "I cannot stress too strongly
how important it is not to impose additional budgetary stress on
the space shuttle program at a time when the shuttle program is
trying to adjust to the cuts already imposed on it." Also opposing
the amendment was House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston
(R-LA), who stated, "There are conflicting interests, all of which
are necessary and vital. We pit NASA against housing; housing
against veterans' benefits. There is no one in this Chamber that
wants to cut any of these things unless it is absolutely necessary.
And it is absolutely necessary to cut these to get to a balanced
budget by the year 2002."
In wrapping up discussion on his amendment, Ensign said, "...this
is a difficult decision to make, and I appreciate what the
subcommittee chairman [Lewis] and all the members of the
[appropriations] committee have gone through in crafting this bill.
To me, though, this happens to be a question of priorities."
FYI #120 provides the roll call vote on the Ensign amendment.