From the Hill


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“From the Hill” is adapted from the e-newsletter Policy Alert, ­published by the Office of Government Relations of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org) in Washington, DC.

Congressional budget deal eases spending limits

Nearly a month after avoiding a September shutdown, congressional leaders and the White House produced the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, a two-year deal to partially roll back the spending caps and to increase discretionary spending in FY 2016 by 5.2%. The deal allows federal agencies to avoid a return to sequestration-level spending and suspends the debt ceiling for over a year. The agreement should be a boon to federal science agencies, which had been operating with relatively modest appropriations during the summer.

To fully understand the contours of the deal, it’s worth taking a short stroll back in time. When the Budget Control Act was signed into law in 2011, it first established an original spending cap baseline and created a joint congressional committee to come up with some kind of trillion-dollar grand bargain to further reduce deficits. When the congressional committee failed to reach an agreement, the Budget Control Act required sequestration to kick in, resulting in across-the-board cuts in FY 2013, and capping federal agencies at a new lower spending baseline for the rest of the decade. This would have resulted in tens of billions of dollars of cumulative cuts in the federal R&D budget.

Fortunately, Congress did not abide by the original law. Every year the sequestration-level spending caps have been in place, Congress has acted to allow for additional spending. Nevertheless, total R&D spending fell by 9.3% in FY 2013, but the reduction would have been much greater under the rules of the Budget Act.

The challenge facing policymakers this year was that the prior deal lifted the caps only in FY 2014 and FY 2015. This meant a return to the sequestration-level baseline in FY 2016. Unsurprisingly, the president’s budget again proposed to roll back the spending caps with a big increase in FY 2016. This would have moved research agency budgets most of the way back to the pre-sequestration spending baseline. But Congress remained unwilling to follow the administration’s lead and in spring 2015 approved a budget resolution that locked in sequestration-level spending and recommended further reductions in future years. The research budget developed by appropriators pointed toward lean times for science.

The agreement reached in October will result in a research budget much closer to the president’s request than to what Congress had developed during the summer. The total discretionary budget will rise 5.2% in FY 2016 and remain flat in FY 2017. Unless Congress acts again to raise the spending ceiling, the budget will revert to the previous sequestration baseline in FY 2017.

A politically important aspect of the deal is how it treats Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, also known as war funding. The president had proposed a $58-billion OCO budget, which is not subject to the spending caps. Congressional defense hawks initially sought to bulk up the OCO budget as a means to skirt around the spending caps. In the final deal, policymakers did agree to increase the OCO budget over two years, but by only about $15 billion, and this is split between the Department of Defense and the Department of State, ensuring the defense/nondefense spending balance remains unchanged.

To offset this extra spending, the budget deal includes a combination of health savings, reductions in agriculture crop insurance subsidies, and other provisions. Congress would cover some of the costs through a series of changes to the Social Security disability and Medicare programs. Another significant offset calls for the sale of 58 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next decade. The deal also incorporates a handful of minor tax code adjustments and several other revenue changes.

This all matters for science funding because discretionary spending and R&D tend to move hand-in-hand: Individual agencies may fare better or worse in different years, but overall research funding closely tracks total discretionary spending. Science advocates will make their case for the importance of research to the nation’s well-being, but stakeholders will be doing the same for other components of the discretionary budget.

Now that Congress has reached this agreement, appropriators will still have to hammer out a final spending bill, perhaps in the form of omnibus legislation. Here, appropriations from this summer may provide some clues. For instance, Senate appropriators sought to give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a $2-billion increase, the largest single-year increase in a decade, and the budget deal improves the odds that NIH will receive it. A bipartisan coalition of more than 100 House members led by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), and David McKinley (R-WV) sent a letter to House Appropriations Committee leadership supporting the increase.

The administration had sought increases of more than 5% for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, and a 5.2% discretionary-spending increase might open the door to these increases (as Rep. John Culberson [R-TX], chair of the NSF appropriations subcommittee, suggested back in May). Supporters of the administration’s manufacturing innovation initiative also hope to see some gains.

Elsewhere, appropriators face difficult decisions about funding for advanced computing and fusion energy research at DOE, and proposed cuts to basic research at the Defense Department. It also remains to be seen how appropriators will cope with major proposed cuts to social sciences and geosciences at NSF. The president’s proposed increases for climate science and renewable energy will remain controversial, but extra fiscal room might temper any push for cuts. Congress has given itself a mid-December deadline to make these decisions.

House to debate energy regulations

The House will debate two Senate-passed resolutions this week to overturn Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate-control regulations under the Congressional Review Act. S.J. Res. 23 would set aside an EPA rule for new and modified generating plants fueled by coal. S.J. Res. 24 would nullify a companion EPA rule setting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing coal-fired electric plants.

Science Committee and NOAA battle continues

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responded in late November to a letter sent by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker requesting that NOAA comply with its previous requests (including a subpoena) for specific communications regarding the NOAA research paper on the global warming “hiatus” published in Science. The response from NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was firm: “I have not or will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me.” The conflict between NOAA and the committee continues to draw attention, including an intersociety letter from eight professional societies led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the threat of legal action could have a chilling effect on science. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) recently argued in an op-ed in The Washington Times that the research paper focused on surface temperature data rather than atmospheric satellite data and is therefore flawed.

Bipartisan senators ask GAO to study climate change costs

Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter last week asking the Government Accountability Office to study three questions: (1) What is known about how estimates of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States are developed?; (2) what is known about the estimated range of economic benefits and costs of climate change in the United States (a) at present and (b) in the near future assuming no change in federal policy?; and (3) based on these estimates, what federal policy actions could have the largest influence in offsetting federal costs associated with climate change?

NSF releases updated data on higher education R&D

The National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has published updated data for FY 2014 from its Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey. An accompanying InfoBrief reports that federal funding for higher education R&D declined by 5.1% between FY 2013 and FY 2014 and has fallen over 11% since its peak in FY 2011—the longest multiyear decline in federal funding for academic R&D since the beginning of the annual HERD survey in FY 1972.

Cite this Article

"From the Hill." Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

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