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This Week in Appropriations: Modest Figures for NSF, NASA, Energy, USDA

Appropriators constrain renewable energy research while boosting fossil and nuclear R&D, amidst familiar debates over NASA’s budget and the recent battle around Zika funding.

This year’s appropriations cycle is already in full swing, reflecting the eagerness of Republican leadership to return to regular order and achieve approval of every spending bill on time. Over the past two weeks, the Senate Appropriations Committee has advanced four spending bills and brought one of them, the Energy and Water appropriations bill, to the floor this week in record time. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has passed three spending bills as of yesterday, charging ahead despite lack of agreement on a budget resolution. Without a budget resolution, the House is unable to consider appropriations bills on the floor until after May 15. However, the Senate is not hampered by such a rule, clearing the way for floor consideration of spending bills now. Current appropriations legislation adheres to the $1.07 trillion discretionary spending level agreed to in last year’s bipartisan budget deal (see recap).

Energy and Water Appropriations
House Status (H.R. 5055, Through Committee 4/19) | Senate Status (S. 2804, Through Committee 4/14)
Funding Tables: DOE R&D Estimates | DOE Energy Programs | Office of Science and NNSA

The contours of this year’s Energy and Water appropriations bills will be familiar to those who’ve followed past energy spending debates. The President’s budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE) had sought major funding increases for renewable energy and energy efficiency technology, energy storage R&D, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), along with a smaller increase for basic research funding at the Office of Science. In contrast, Congressional Republican priorities remain geared towards fossil energy and nuclear energy technology, as seen in the Appropriations Committee-approved versions of the bill.

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For the Office of Science, both committees coincidentally approved only a small 1.0 percent discretionary funding increase – compared with an inflation rate of 1.8 percent – but with differing allocations among science programs, as seen in the table and charts linked above. Senate appropriators would zero out funding for ITER, the international fusion energy project, and adopt most of the reductions to domestic research proposed by the President to yield a steep 36.0 percent cut for Fusion Energy Sciences overall. The ITER funding would be reallocated to the other five programs, all of which would receive increases near or above the President’s request. On the other hand, House appropriators would grant the requested increase for ITER and provide a boost above FY 2016 levels for domestic research. In the House Committee bill, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR), Nuclear Physics, and Basic Energy Sciences would receive flat or nearly-flat funding from FY 2016 levels, while Biological and Environmental Research Program funding would again be cut. House appropriators did provide a 3.5 percent boost for High-Energy Physics thanks to a near-doubling of funding for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, including an extra $5 million above the request.

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As in past years, appropriators in opposing parties have a completely different take on funding for DOE’s applied technology offices, with the only question one of degree. The Senate Committee would flat-fund or nearly flat-fund nearly every program. While the Office of Nuclear Energy would be granted a 7.3 percent funding increase in the Senate bill, this is primarily due to a consolidation in funding for the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho Lab, which had previously received some of its funding through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) appropriation. House appropriators would again levy steep cuts on the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, but would provide significant increases for grid-related R&D and for ARPA-E.

  • Appropriators in both chambers matched or nearly matched the Administration’s requested increase for a new exascale computing office within ASCR.
  • House appropriators provided only $97.8 million of the requested $142.6 million for the Energy Frontier Research Centers program (a Senate figure was not specified), and both chambers also fell shy of the request for Bioenergy Research Centers funding.
  • The Administration had proposed using a significant $240 million balance in unused prior-year funding to offset a steep reduction in budget authority for the Fossil Energy R&D program. Appropriators did not go along with this, instead providing entirely new funding for the Fossil Energy office.
  • The Senate provided funding for the Administration’s proposed Energy-Water Desalination Hub, while the House did not. Appropriators also parted ways on DOE’s advanced manufacturing activities.
  • Neither chamber provided funding for the Administration’s new proposed regional energy innovation initiative.
  • Relatedly, this week also saw Senate passage of a new energy program reauthorization bill.

The bill already reached the Senate floor this week, with bill sponsor Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) expressing hope that voting would be completed early the week of April 25th. On Wednesday, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) proposed, and the chamber accepted, an amendment to boost ARPA-E funding. The Administration has already threatened to veto the Senate bill.

Agriculture Appropriations
House Status (Through Committee 4/19) | Senate Status (Not yet introduced)
Funding Table: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The House Committee-passed version of the Agriculture bill, which was approved last Tuesday, would bring overall USDA R&D down by an estimated 3.7 percent below current FY 2016 levels, and 1.4 percent below the request. Funding for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), USDA’s main in-house research arm, would drop by an estimated 7.6 percent; however, this reduction is primarily because Congress completed appropriations in the FY 2016 omnibus for construction of a new Southeast Poultry Research Lab in Athens, GA, at a price tag of nearly $160 million. The ARS construction request is thus significantly reduced this year. Excluding construction, ARS research funding would be roughly flat in the House bill.

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The House appropriation for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA's extramural research agency, is slightly below the request but still good for an estimated 2.0 percent increase in FY 2017. The Administration had slated the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the lead competitive research program within NIFA, for a budget doubling to its authorized level of $700 million. However, the Administration would finance this increase mostly through new mandatory funding (see budget guide). While House legislators have so far rejected this new mandatory funding proposal, appropriators did match the base discretionary boost of $25 million for AFRI.

During the Tuesday markup, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced an amendment that would have provided $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus. The President had requested such an amount in his February budget, but the request was rejected by appropriators. On Tuesday, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) followed up with an amendment that allows the Administration to use existing, unobligated funding within the Departments of State and Health and Human Services to respond to the Zika outbreak. The Rogers amendment was approved, though the months-long debate continues between the GOP and the White House over this issue. A bipartisan Senate measure, still a work in progress, to partially fund the President’s $1.9 billion request for Zika may be attached to a spending bill during a Senate floor vote in the near future.

The Agriculture appropriations bill now heads to the House floor for consideration. 

Military-Construction Veterans Affairs Appropriations
House Status (H.R. 4974, Through Committee 4/13) | Senate Status (S. 2806, Through Committee 4/14)
Funding Table: Dept. of Veterans Affairs

The Milcon-VA bill is usually an easy one for appropriators to approve, and was accordingly the first appropriations bill to move through either chamber this year. Support for VA research remains strong on both sides of the aisle, and Congress typically makes little, if any, adjustments to the President’s request. For FY 2017, the House matched the requested level of $663 million, or a 5.2 percent increase, for VA Medical and Prosthetics Research, an intramural program funding biomedical laboratory science, rehabilitation research, health services, and clinical science. Meanwhile, the Senate topped the House and Administration request by $12 million, bringing VA medical and prosthetic research to $675 million or a 7.1 percent increase in FY 2017.

VA’s total R&D budget, which includes additional funds requested from the VA Medical Care Program in support of research, has remained above $1 billion for the past seven years.

The Senate's Milcon-VA bill now heads to the floor, while further action awaits in the House.

Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations
House Status (Not yet introduced) | Senate Status (Through Committee 4/21)

On Thursday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the annual spending bill that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Department of Commerce. The bill and associated materials are not available at the time of this writing, but the committee has provided a summary of major provisions in the bill.

According to the summary, NASA would receive a small $21 million increase above FY 2016 levels – in stark contrast to the billion-dollar cut proposed by the Administration. Both Orion capsule and Space Launch System development would receive increases rather than the Administration-proposed cuts, while the Science Mission Directorate would also receive additional funding above the request, though would still be subject to a 3.5 percent reduction below FY 2016 levels.

The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, would be essentially flat-funded from FY 2016 levels compared to a 1.3 percent increase sought by the White House. Within that amount, appropriators would add an additional $53 million to the proposed research vessel construction budget, providing a third vessel compared to two requested by the President. The major R&D agencies within Commerce – the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – would both see very modest increases in overall budgets. Additional detail on all of these agencies will be provided in next week’s update. The bill is bound for the Senate floor next.

Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations
House Status (Not yet introduced) | Senate Status (Through Committee 4/21)

The Senate Committee also passed the THUD bill unanimously Thursday afternoon. Again, there is no bill available at press time, but according to the committee’s summary, Senate appropriators matched the Administration’s billion-dollar request for the NextGen aviation modernization initiative at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), while providing an increase for railroad research and safety funding. Surface transportation funding in the bill is consistent with the FAST Act reauthorization reached last winter, according to the committee.

The transportation funding bill’s next stop is the Senate floor, and additional updates will be provided when more detail is available.