This Week in Appropriations: House Clears Omnibus Spending Bill

The spending package can’t pass as-is, but sets the stage for later negotiations with the Senate and White House.

Yesterday, the House passed an FY 2018 omnibus spending package (H.R. 3354) by a partisan 211-198 vote. The omnibus contains all 12 annual funding bills approved by the House Appropriations Committee, including the four that were already passed as a ‘minibus’ in July.

The omnibus package allows the House to complete its appropriations work on time for the first time since 2009, but it also can’t become law in its current form. That’s because the omnibus sets defense spending at $621.5 billion, approximately $72 billion above the spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act. As explained last month, violating the caps would trigger a sequestration: across-the-board cuts to force defense spending back down within the caps. The package is unlikely to get even that far, however, as it would require Democratic support to achieve the necessary 60 votes in the Senate. Democrats are unlikely to go along with any appropriations that boost defense spending while simultaneously trimming nondefense, as the omnibus does. Already, Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has issued a statement condemning the package.

Agency spending levels in the omnibus thus represent a step in the longer-term negotiation that will have to eventually involve the Senate and the White House. Before that can happen, however, the parties will still need to resolve the spending cap situation. While there is some appetite in both parties to raise the caps, the path forward is very much up in the air. Further muddying the waters is the Republican tax reform effort, which continues to stall out. It’s possible progress in one realm might facilitate progress in the other. Congress has until December 8 to deal with the situation, at which point they face another potential shutdown, and may have to pass yet another continuing resolution to keep the federal lights on.

R&D in the Omnibus

According to AAAS estimates, the House omnibus would increase federal R&D by a total 4.9 percent or $7.7 billion above FY 2017 estimates, to $164.4 billion total. Basic and applied research would increase by 2.6 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, both slightly ahead of inflation; development spending would grow by even more due to large proposed boosts for Department of Defense development activities (see graph at right). In comparison, the President’s FY 2018 budget had proposed deep cuts to research agencies including NIH, DOE, and NSF. For a side-by-side comparison of all relevant science funding agencies, see the AAAS R&D Appropriations Dashboard.

Over the past two weeks, House lawmakers considered over 300 floor amendments to the omnibus. To recap major R&D-relevant amendments:

  • Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) saw passage of his amendment to shift funding within NSF’s Research and Related Activities (R&RA) account, to boost basic research in the physical and biological sciences by a total of $30.2 million, at the expense of other NSF research.
  • An amendment sponsored by Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) to increase funding by $5 million for NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) passed on a vote of 279-137. The amendment brings MEP funding to $105 million from the House; the Senate had flat-funded the program.
  • Within NIH, funding for the National Cancer Institute would be increased by a total of $4.8 million thanks to successful amendments sponsored by Reps. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) and Rick Nolan (D-MN).
  • An amendment sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) would restore funding for NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and prevent a consolidation proposed by the Administration.
  • Two Florida Republicans added funds for USDA research activities. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) shepherded a $1.5 million amendment to increase oriental fruit fly research at the Agricultural Research Service, while Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) secured $2 million to expand the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s postdoctoral research around harmful algal blooms.
  • For the Department of Transportation, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) won approval of an amendment to add $15 million to the University Transportation Centers (UTC) Program.

The White House has announced that the President would sign the omnibus into law should it be adopted, though again, it stands virtually no chance of passage in the Senate, where appropriators have written appropriations bills to different overall funding levels.

Continue to check the AAAS R&D Appropriations Dashboard and Bill Tracker to stay updated as the process moves forward.