This Week in Appropriations: Senate Trims NASA, NSF While House Gets On the Minibus

The House adopts a quartet of spending bills, the Commerce Department gets a mixed Senate bag, and a spending deal remains far off.

This week, the full House approved its first spending legislation of the year – a so-called “minibus” that packaged together four individual spending measures covering defense, energy, and other areas – while Senate appropriators unveiled and approved two bills funding NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Commerce and Transportation. Throughout all this, legislators continue to reject the deep cuts sought by the Trump Administration, opting instead for smaller reductions with some targeted increases, with the possibility alive that additional funding could be added later in the process should Congress reach a spending deal.

In the bigger picture this week, House of Representatives leadership punted a vote on the 2018 budget resolution until at least September. The budget resolution typically sets the overall spending contours for Congressional appropriators. This year’s resolution, approved by the House Budget Committee earlier this month, has tax and entitlement reform as its major goals, but also recommends a big boost for defense discretionary spending at the expense of nondefense discretionary spending – a recommendation similar to what the White House proposed. For FY 2018, House budgeteers recommend trimming nondefense spending by $7.5 billion below current-year levels, while boosting defense by $71 billion above current levels. This split between defense and nondefense would continue over the next decade (see nondefense graph at right, and defense graph here). This matters because discretionary spending is where just about all science and technology lives in the federal budget, and House appropriators have written their spending bills with these changes in mind.

The House budget has divided Republicans, however, and the Budget Committee’s plan – and House spending legislation that fits with it – doesn’t have much chance of passing the Senate, where 60 votes would be required to modify current law to change the caps.

House: Security “Minibus” Passes With Defense, Energy, Veterans Funding
After two days of amendments, the full House passed its security “minibus,” the Make America Secure Appropriations Act, on a party-line 235-192 vote. As mentioned above, the bill packaged four individual bills into a single vehicle, in an effort to show progress on spending legislation before the House heads out for the annual August recess, even though the bill as written provides far more defense spending than is allowed under the current caps.

Science and technology programs across these bills – which cover the Departments of Energy, Defense, and Veterans Affairs – fare far better than they would have under the White House budget request, but many programs are still lined up for some reduction, even after several floor amendments added some science and technology funding to different corners of the bill.

Some notes on energy-related floor amendments, tackled by the House on Wednesday and Thursday:

  • Two DOE programs slated for elimination by both the White House and House legislation – the Energy Innovation Hubs and the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship – were preserved, via amendments by Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-MA), respectively. In his floor statement, Takano remarked that “the four existing innovation hubs conduct critical research across energy fields including nuclear, solar, advanced storage, and energy supply chains. These hubs are modeled off of the iconic Bell Laboratories, but private industry no longer sustains this type of research due to increasing pressure to make short-term profits. That is why it is essential that the government conduct this research.” Both programs have been supported already in the Senate.
  • An additional $10 million was added for energy storage demonstration projects, via an amendment from Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI).
  • Several attempts were made by Democrats to boost funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), which is up for steep reductions; some came at the expensive of fossil energy R&D, though most failed. One that succeeded: An amendment from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) to add $15 million for EERE hydropower R&D.
  • Conversely, an amendment from Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) returned the Fossil Energy R&D office to FY 2017 levels, achieved by shifting $33.4 million from EERE. McKinley argued the office deserves a greater share of the energy R&D portfolio as fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source in the U.S. well into the 21st century (per Energy Information Administration forecasts), and therefore provide an opportunity to develop cleaner, exportable fossil technologies.

Beyond the energy title, several amendments were relevant to Department of Defense (DOD) science and technology, with several to add or shift funding. These included increases of $5 million for the STARBASE education program and $10 million for the Cyber Scholarship Program; both amendments had several co-sponsors. Over $30 million was added for cancer and Gulf War Illness research, and other amendments increased funding for military munitions research, medical technology, and the Navy’s electromagnetic railgun project.

During the proceedings, Rep. Takano and others offered an amendment to reconstitute the Office of Technology Assessment, a technical analytical office that existed for over 20 years until it was defunded by Congress in 1995, but the amendment failed.

Senate: Research Agencies Cut Amid Budget Cap Debate
Senate appropriators followed their House counterparts in protecting NSF and other agencies from steep White House-proposed cuts this week. But the Senate’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) bill, which also includes NASA and the Commerce Department, is $3.2 billion smaller this year compared to last year, a victim of tight nondefense spending overall. That meant some small cuts even for NASA, which has historically been among Senate appropriators’ favorites.

For the third week in a row, Senate Democrats pushed for equal increases in the defense and nondefense caps. During the CJS markup Thursday, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced an amendment that, among other things, would have increased NSF’s budget by 5.0 percent and maintained NASA funding at FY 2017 levels – all contingent on Congress reaching a bipartisan budget agreement to lift the spending caps – but the amendment narrowly failed by a 15-16 vote. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), CJS subcommittee chair, remarked, “If there is another budget agreement in the future, which we all hope will come about, I want to work with Senator Shaheen and others to discuss increases for programs in our bill that we all support.”

Regarding bill specifics: the total NSF budget would decrease by $161 million or 2.2 percent below 2017 under the Senate legislation. Senate appropriators prioritized $105 million for construction of three Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRVs), continuing recent Senate efforts to shore up funding for the RCRV project, whereas the House offered no funding for RCRVs in their own bill. Conversely, the Senate bill would cut NSF’s primary research account by 1.9 percent, and NSF’s Education Directorate 2.0 percent below last year (see NSF in the AAAS appropriations dashboard).

Within NASA, Senate appropriators would carry out a large $234 million or 12.7 percent cut to Planetary Science, while keeping Earth Science funded at last year’s levels – the inverse approach to their House counterparts (see chart at right). This move would allow the agency to continue funding for several Earth Science missions slated for elimination in the request, including Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder.

On the exploration front, both the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Crew Vehicle would be funded at FY 2017 enacted amounts, the same as the House bill, as opposed to the cuts requested by the Administration. The Space Technology directorate would see a 2.0 percent increase, including $130 million to preserve the RESTORE-L from its requested elimination; the House provided only $45.3 million for RESTORE-L. NASA’s Office of Education, which was slated for termination in the President’s request, was also protected in the Senate bill, with flat funding recommended for FY 2018. See also NASA in the AAAS appropriations dashboard.

At the Commerce Department, NIST’s laboratories would see a small 0.7 percent uptick, a substantial boost of $95 million above the Administration request. Notably, Senate appropriators rejected the Administration’s proposed elimination of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP); the House proposed a $30 million cut to MEP. Funding for NIST’s coordinating role within Manufacturing USA, the interagency network of public-private manufacturing innovation institutes, would be equal to the President’s request of $15 million in FY 2018, a $10 million decrease below last year.

Elsewhere in the Commerce Department, NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) would see funding for Climate Research maintained at last year’s levels, avoiding the 19.0 percent cut recommended by the House and the Administration. Senate appropriators did side with the House in rejecting the Administration’s proposed elimination of the National Sea Grant College Program. The Senate Committee also sidelined the Administration’s proposal to terminate federal funding for the National Estuarine Research Reserves System, as did the House. NOAA’s flagship weather satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system, would receive full funding for FY 2018. Notably, the Polar Follow On mission, which was targeted for big cuts by the House and Administration, would instead gain $90.1 million above its FY 2017 enacted amount of $328.9 million.

For the Census Bureau, the Senate Committee sided with both the House and Administration’s recommended 4.3 percent increase to Periodic Censuses and Programs, which funds the 2020 census.

The Senate Committee took a similarly mixed approach for Department of Transportation (DOT) technology programs in a separate bill adopted Thursday. The committee granted a moderate funding increase above FY 2017 levels for the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen initiative to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. NextGen would receive $1.1 billion according to the bill summary, while the Administration had requested only $988 million in its FY 2018 budget proposal. Senate appropriators also granted a small increase for FAA’s research, development, and engineering program, mostly for advanced materials research for commercial aviation. The committee flat-funded R&D programs at the Federal Railroad Administration, rather than adopting the moderate requested cut, while trimming other smaller DOT programs.