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The Senate is Making Things a Little Easier for Research Appropriations

A decision to exempt veterans health programs from the spending cap should help alleviate the squeeze in FY 2021.

Following a meeting at the White House, Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) announced veterans community health programs will not count toward the nondefense spending caps in FY 2021. This should be helpful for research funding when appropriations move ahead.

The programs in question, established under the MISSION Act, allow veterans to seek care from private providers in light of an overtaxed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health system. But costs have been rising: in last year's omnibus spending package (H.R. 1865), appropriators gave MISSION Act programs $8.9 billion for FY 2020 and $11.3 billion in advance appropriations for FY 2021. 

This is problematic because of very limited space this year. Under the terms of the recent cap deal, base funding for nondefense programs will go up by less than 1%, or $5 billion above FY 2020 levels (excluding one-time Census funding last year). That means MISSION Act costs run the risk of eating up most of the increase, especially if they continue to rise beyond what Congress has already provided.

Senate appropriators' decision to exempt VA MISSION Act costs from the caps means an effective year-over-year nondefense increase of about $14 billion or 2.3%. This is still not an enormous sum, but it provides something of a release valve to take the pressure off other spending, including research. House legislators feel similarly.

Graphing show falling and rising science agency spending, with NIH and energy seeing the largest recent gains.


So with a smidgen of spending flexibility now, how might research programs fare? Lately Congress has been pouring money into the National Institutes of Health and into energy science and technology programs (see above). Legislators may choose to continue prioritizing these areas, or they may turn their attention to others that have lagged behind.

The change may be particularly good news for the National Science Foundation as some prominent legislators have expressed a renewed interest in investing there to support competitiveness in robotics, quantum science, manufacturing, and other areas.

For perspective, in FY 2019, appropriators had only a slightly larger increase to work with and ended up spreading around moderate increases for several agencies.

The picture will certainly become clearer when (and if) Senate appropriators begin voting on their spending bills next month.