Science & Technology in Congress
Early in February, Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) and 20 cosponsors announced the "Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act," which is intended to switch the current annual appropriations, authorization, and budget process to a biennial cycle.
Under the proposed plan, the President would submit a two-year budget request during a Congress's first session. The Congress would then develop and pass the necessary appropriations and authorizations to fund the federal government for the two-year period. The second session of the Congress could then be devoted to oversight activities which, Sen. Domenici claims, are often neglected in the current annual budget cycle. Sen. Domenici has asserted that a biennial budget system would have strong advantages for the science and technology community by allowing more effective long range planning and improved oversight and priority-setting for complex projects.
Science and technology oriented agencies that would be influenced by implementation of the new scheme, like the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, are still unsure of how a biennial system would impact their operations. The consensus among many recipients of federal funding for science, however, is that anything that may improve and simplify the workings of Congress, in addition to creating greater stability in funding, is bound to have a significant positive impact on the effectiveness of their programs. This is particularly important for long-term, capital-intensive projects.
While the "Biennial Budgeting and Appropriations Act" may have growing bipartisan support in the Senate, getting the legislation passed remains a challenge. Powerful members of the House and the Senate, including House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-LA) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, oppose the bill. Shifting to a biennial system could diminish the influence of the appropriations panels by restricting their activities, only allowing them to wield their power once every two years.
Despite this opposition, it is clear that the biennial scheme makes sense to a lot of people, both on and off the Hill. In his first press conference as chair of the House Science Committee, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI) voiced his desire to authorize two-year funding levels for the agencies under the Committee's jurisdiction. While not specifically endorsing Sen. Domenici's proposed legislation, Rep. Sensenbrenner's plan for the Science Committee shares the same goals: enhanced congressional oversight and more effective agency-level planning.
Sen. Domenici has been advocating shifting the federal budgeting process to a biennial system for years. It appears that now, with the support of key legislators like minority whip Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-KY) and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN), the prospects for passage of biennial budget legislation are better now than they have been in the past.