13 June 2014

US Senate Set to Consider NASA and NSF Appropriations

Josh Shiode

The appropriations process is lurching forward — with the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body set to consider its bill funding NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Commerce and Justice Departments next week. The House of Representatives passed its version on 30 May 2014, with strong increases for research at both NASA and NSF (see recent post for details).

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its FY 2015 CJS appropriations last Thursday, 5 June 2014, with similar increases to NASA's top line and that of its Science Mission Directorate (SMD) but not for NSF's Research & Related Activities account. The Senate bill funds NASA at $17.9 billion, with SMD at $5.2 billion, and NSF at the President's requested level of $7.26 billion, with its Research & Related Activities account slightly above the request at $5.84 billion. The full Senate is planning to take up the bill next week, alongside two other spending bills covering the Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

The specific procedures for floor consideration differ between the chambers, but in both, the process provides the first substantive opportunity for members not on the Appropriations Committees to amend the funding levels and policy provisions in the bills. The number and content of amendments may be subject to procedural rules, but in theory any member may offer an amendment for consideration by the full chamber. 

Both the House and Senate require each spending bill to fit within its “302(b)” allocation — the total allowed discretionary spending for all agencies and programs the bill covers. In practice, this means amendments that propose spending increases in one category require an equal offset within the same jurisdiction. Some amendments do this by reallocating funds within an agency, as was the case for a House amendment that shifted money between NASA’s Space Operations and Space Technology accounts. The tradeoffs need not be so tightly coupled, though, as demonstrated by the many House amendments that targeted the Census Bureau and the Department of Justice's General Fund to pay for increases in weather research and Violence Against Women Prevention and Prosecution Programs, to name just two.

In the run-up to the House floor debate on the CJS bill, there was well-founded concern that members might introduce amendments targeting the social, behavioral, and geophysical sciences. There is both historical precedent and ongoing legislative work targeting these particular areas of science as not in the "national interest" or otherwise worthy of taxpayer investment — a notion the science community is nearly unanimous in opposing. Several of these cropped up, and one amendment that passed aimed to negate a proposed $15.9 million increase for the Foundation's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate (without changing the research account top line).1

As the Senate bill moves to the floor next week, science advocates are expecting more of the same. In particular, the recent past has seen amendments in the form of policy riders that forbid the NSF from funding political-science research unless the Foundation's director certifies such research "as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." We'll be watching closely for any such amendments, or any that would target NASA funding to offset other increases. 

Once the bill passes the Senate (which may take a while given the body's "deliberative" reputation), it will need to be reconciled with the House version before heading down Pennsylvania Avenue for the President's signatureSome have been predicting that this reconciliation won't happen until after the midterm elections this November, as Senate Republicans eye a potential majority moving into the next Congress. With the fiscal year turning over 1 October, this would mean at least a couple months on a continuing resolution (autopilot spending) and continuing uncertainty about the future.

1For procedural reasons, the text of the amendment could not target that directorate outright, but speeches on the House floor made the intent plain.