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Appropriations Status Update: Strong Proposal Under Consideration in the House

Tuesday, May 6, 2014 - 16:08

If you’re like me, you read the news. Too general? OK, if you’re like me, you read Slate. And in particular you read Phil Plait’s blog. So when I saw his latest post on the NASA budget this afternoon, it made me realize that while I’ve spent a much of my time over the last several days thinking about the appropriations bill the House’s Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee released this past week (which covers both NSF and NASA), I hadn't actually put those thoughts down on… screen?

In our last update on Congress and it’s budget-setting process, subcommittee staff were writing bills while Members of Congress visited their states and districts, after a long period of information gathering. Last Wednesday (30 April), the CJS subcommittee held a markup of its proposal for budgets under its jurisdiction. As I was warned before standing in line to watch this markup, the subcommittee markup is largely just a formal venue for introducing the bill, discussing it, and reporting it to the full Appropriations Committee. This is as opposed to the markup process I read about, in which amendments are introduced and considered—which will happen later during the full committee markup. This particular year marks the last before the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf (R, VA-10), retires after 34 years in Congress, ten of them at the helm of this subcommittee. So the markup was also a well-deserved ode to Congressman Wolf’s long and laudable career in the House. There were also, however, a few interesting nuggets to be gleaned. 

It’s important to know that most of the details of the appropriations are contained in the report that accompanies the bill (e.g., last year's), which will not be released until the full committee markup. At this time, we only know for sure what’s proposed in the bill itself, but can gain insight on what’s in the report language based on what members of the subcommittee said during last week’s markup. The bill itself looks overall quite positive for astronomical science research!

After the President’s Budget Request (PBR) proposed a significant $179M cut to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) relative to the FY 2014 appropriation enacted by Congress, this bill proposes instead a $42M increase for SMD ($221M above the PBR), in the context of a $250M increase for NASA overall. The only details in the bill itself relevant to SMD are the continued $8 billion cost cap for development of the James Webb Space Telescope and a $100M allocation for formulating a mission to Europa ($85M more than requested in the PBR). Other hints come from the comments of Rep. Adam Schiff (D, CA-28) and Rep. Mike Honda (D, CA-17), who thanked the Chairman not only for his many years of service but for providing strong funding for Planetary Science and including funding for SOFIA operations, respectively. We expect to see the detailed information behind those comments when the report is released later this week. 

The appropriation for NSF was similarly positive, with a $237M increase relative to last year’s enacted level for NSF overall ($153M higher than the PBR). While the PBR had also proposed an increase for NSF, none of that would have gone to the Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account from which the Astronomical Sciences Division draws funding (via the Mathematics and Physical Sciences Directorate). The House CJS bill instead proposes a larger overall increase for NSF, with a $170M increase for R&RA and a smaller $30M increase for Education and Human Resources (relative to the PBR). 

It’s important to recognize, as stated during opening remarks by Chairman Wolf, that all these increases were made in the context of a smaller allocation for the totality of the subcommittee’s jurisdiction relative to last year. The cut is relatively small, at about 0.8%, but the denominator here is $51.2 billion. Furthermore, as noted previously, there are programs within the subcommittee's jurisdiction that require increases just to continue functioning properly (including the US Census bureau, which begins ramping up toward the 2020 census this year). This led someone to predict the chances for science funding increases at slim to none…

The proposed increases for science research at NASA and NSF in this bill, I think, demonstrate a real desire on behalf of the leaders of this subcommittee to prioritize investments in research within constraints that arguably DO NOT prioritize those same investments. Given those constraints, these increases also require extremely difficult decisions, some of which were described by Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee Nita Lowey (D, NY-17) during last week’s markup.

There is still a long road ahead, starting with consideration in the House Appropriations Committee and then on the House floor, two venues where amendments could change the proposed numbers. We’ll also watch the companion process in Senate, which is targeting May 22 as the start date for its markup process (though when the CJS action will take place is not yet clear). All that said, with a strong advocate chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee in Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), this strong proposal for science research from the House CJS subcommittee could be a signal of good things to come!

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society
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