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Defense Appropriations: Senate, House Diverge on Basic Research

Last week was a busy one for FY 2016 Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations, as the House approved its appropriations bill (H.R. 2685, 278-149 vote) the same day the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its own version on a voice vote (S. 1558); the Senate is also grappling with the National Defense Authorization Act.

Even though both bills adopt this same war funding strategy, they diverage on science and technology spending, especially basic research (see graph at right). While the House mostly adopts the President's request for reduced basic research funding in FY 2016, the Senate would grant increases above the request across programs (see this table). The Senate is also marginally more generous than the House on applied research.

In the Senate appropriations bill, which was first unveiled last week, increases were fairly broad-based across multiple programs in the military services, including boosts for intramural research, university programs and, as is fairly typical, funding for materials science. However, the Senate committee, like the House, would trim DARPA funding somewhat (by $20 million or 0.7 percent, compared with a House cut of 1.5 percent and a requested increase of 1.5 percent), directing the agency to make use of unobligated budget authority from prior years.

As has been widely reported, the central point of larger controversy remains, of course, Congressional Republicans' use of war funding, technically dubbed Overseas Contingency Operations funding or "OCO," as a means to get around the Budget Control Act defense spending caps without touching the constraints on nondefense spending. Both the House and Senate bills take the Pentagon's $51 billion OCO funding request and add at least $35 billion to it, resulting in bills that achieve a 4 percent defense spending increase even though current law allows barely any increase. Democrats have vowed to block and/or veto all legislation attempting this. This controversy emerged again during the Senate committee markup, prompting Ranking Member Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), critical of the OCO strategy, to remark that "OCO sounds like a rare bird from Costa Rica." Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) also offered an amendment, voted down, to shift the excess funding from OCO to the base budget and add additional dollars for breast cancer and ALS research.

On the House floor, several amendments were accepted to increase funding for medical research under the Defense Health Program, as in prior years. DOD's medical research activities, which include a large extramural component, remain popular with appropriators. The amendment sponsors, amounts, and purposes include:

  • Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), $1 million for lung cancer research. Nolan's daughter is currently battling advanced lung cancer.
  • Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), $10 million for Gulf War Illness and $10 million for prostate cancer research.
  • Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), $5 million for Alzheimer's research.
  • Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA), $1 million for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), $1 million for post-traumatic stress disorder and $10 million for breast cancer research, of which Lee is a survivor.
  • Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), $25 million for traumatic brain injury.

These bring total spending for medical research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) up to $1.6 billion for FY 2016 in the House bill, still a 5.2 percent reduction from the current year. By comparison, the Senate committee would grant a 3.9 percent increase for medical research. If it should reach the Senate floor, it's reasonable to expect an additional attempt or two to add more medical research dollars there.

Also successful on the House floor were a pair of controversial amendments from Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) to authorize the transfer of up to $3.5 billion to what's known as the Sea Based Deterrence Fund. The fund is intended as a means for the Navy to finance expensive replacements for the current Ohio-class submarine fleet, without further increasing the Navy's regular shipbuilding budget; the funding would instead come from other accounts over time. The measure has been criticized by Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), among others, who argue that the fund will divert funds away from other programs outside the Navy.

Unsuccessful House amendments included Rep. Alan Lowenthal's (D-CA) attempt to add an extra $2 million for DOD's Starbase program, which seeks to engage elementary school students in STEM learning.

In the Senate committee, one amendment that did make it through, offered by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), makes a call for defense and nondefense sequestration relief in FY 2016 and FY 2017, to be offset through "targeted changes in mandatory and discretionary categories and revenues." The amendment, which only expresses the sentiment without changing law, was accepted by an 18-12 vote.

Senate Republicans intend to make the Defense bill the first to the Senate floor, though Democratic leadership is still vowing to filibuster over the sequestration-level spending caps.

Cover photo credit: Department of Defense Flickr


Matt Hourihan


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