Congress Begins Consideration of Science Agency Funding at Speedy Pace

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Publication date: 
19 April 2016

The House and Senate are kicking off the congressional budget process this year with unprecedented speed, as the appropriations committees begin historically early consideration of key science spending bills.

You can follow the spending proposals and outcomes of the fiscal year 2017 budget process for the agencies that sponsor the physical sciences using AIP’s new Federal Science Budget Tracker. The Tracker is updated on a rolling basis as new budget information becomes available.

Moving at a historically quick pace, the House and Senate are racing through the congressional budget process in an attempt to complete as many of the fiscal year 2017 annual spending bills as possible before Congress recesses in late July and turns its focus to the general election. However, partisan gridlock and disagreements over spending levels threaten to stall the process, as in past years. A debate in the House over the overall discretionary spending level for the year has already left that chamber missing a key deadline set by budget law.

Appropriations panels already advancing science spending bills

With or without congressional agreement on topline spending levels, the House and Senate appropriations committees are moving forward on an aggressive timeline to consider all 12 spending bills, which each year fund nearly all of federal research and development. Senate leadership has indicated the intention to finish consideration of all the Senate spending bills within 12 weeks, or one bill per week, while the House remains a few steps behind that timeline.

Last Wednesday, a key Senate appropriations subcommittee advanced its draft Energy & Water Development appropriations bill that funds the Department of Energy, and the full Senate Appropriations Committee followed on Thursday with its approval. The Senate will begin floor consideration of the measure this week, and a final vote could arrive in the chamber as soon as next week. (Full FYI coverage on this Senate action is forthcoming.) The equivalent appropriations subcommittee in the House held a business meeting to consider its version of the Energy & Water Development legislation this morning.

This afternoon, the Senate Commerce, Justice & Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee will meet to consider the spending bill that funds NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology). The full Senate Appropriations Committee will meet to consider the CJS bill on April 21.

In a speech referencing the remarkable speed with which appropriators are moving this year, the ranking member of the CJS subcommittee and the full Senate Appropriations Committee Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said yesterday she expects the Senate to vote on a final CJS appropriations bill “within the next two or three weeks.” The House Appropriations Committee has not yet announced a schedule for consideration of its chamber’s CJS bill.

Senate sets overall discretionary spending levels; House unable to reach agreement

Under federal budget law, the House and Senate have until April 15 to adopt a congressional budget resolution that sets the overall spending levels for the year and guides the appropriations committees by designating spending allocations for the fiscal year. In recent years, Congress has missed this budget deadline, and this year is no different.

The House Budget Committee made progress when it approved a budget resolution on March 16, by a vote of 20-16. However, the resolution stalled on its way to the House floor over disagreements in the Republican caucus about whether the House should set the overall discretionary spending level in line with a 2015 bipartisan budget law or $30 billion below that amount.

In contrast, the Senate has made greater progress toward a budget outline. While the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Mike Enzi (R-WY) announced in early March that the Senate would abandon the effort for a formal fiscal year 2017 budget resolution, yesterday Enzi finalized overall discretionary spending levels that adhere to the 2015 budget agreement: $551 billion for defense spending and $518.5 billion for non-defense spending. These top lines levels hold overall non-defense discretionary spending flat between fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) also announced its subcommittee spending allocations for the fiscal year, as follows for the subcommittees key to the physical sciences:

  • The Senate CJS appropriations subcommittee is receiving an allocation of $56.3 billion, a 1.1 percent increase over fiscal year 2016.
  • The Senate Energy-Water appropriations subcommittee is receiving $37.5 billion, a 0.9 percent increase over fiscal year 2016.

While the early movement of the spending legislation that funds the major science agencies is welcome news for researchers and scientific facilities, it is no guarantee that Congress and the president will fund the agencies on time before the end of the fiscal year. The last year Congress was able to pass all 12 appropriations bills on time was 1996, a track record that many have pointed to as a sign that the congressional budget process is broken.


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