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<< Back to January 2007 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the January 2007 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 19/No. 1]

Congress Change Could Mean Slight Changes in Science Policy
But First Job for New Congress is to Finish Old Appropriations

By Peter Harsha

With the change in Congressional leadership resulting from the Democrats’ strong showing in November’s mid-term elections, the landscape for research funding issues in Congress is expected to change in a number of ways, with outcomes that are, at this point, difficult to predict. For the research advocacy community, these changes will include new personalities heading every key Congressional committee and new legislative priorities for the Congressional leadership that could imperil recent gains in research funding commitments. But they may also include changes in the way Congress works—changing the number or organization of committees, for example, or altering their jurisdiction or membership—that could seriously impact how issues of importance to the research community play out in the legislative branch.

As this article goes to press, it is somewhat unclear how the new Congress will look and function. Beyond the Congressional leadership positions and some key committee chairmanships, not much is known about how the committees will organize or who will lead the individual subcommittees. Final decisions on committee chairs will likely be made in January, with subcommittee chairmanships decided in late January—just in time to receive the President’s fiscal year 2008 budget request the first Monday in February.

But the first task for the 110th Congress may be finishing up the work of the 109th Congress. Members of the 109th Congress reconvened after the November election, but failed to make progress on 11 unfinished appropriations bills (out of the 13 required to fund the operations of government annually), including the Science, State, Justice, and Commerce Appropriations and the Energy and Water Appropriations bills that contain increases to the science agencies named in the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). Earlier Congress had managed to pass the single largest appropriations bill—the FY 07 Defense Appropriations—but could only do so after agreeing to break the spending cap for the bill by $5 billion. The resulting appropriations shortfall—that $5 billion would have to be found somewhere in the remaining 11 appropriations bills—helped the Congressional Republican leadership decide that it no longer had the stomach for dealing with the FY 07 appropriations process. Instead, they pushed through a “continuing resolution,” funding the operations of the federal government at FY 06 spending levels until February 2007, effectively dumping the appropriations problem onto the incoming Democratic leadership.

The science advocacy community expressed great concern with this development. The continuing resolution effectively freezes federal spending at the previous year’s levels and prevents the start of new programs at federal agencies. In a year in which the community has been largely successful at encouraging Congress to embrace the funding increases for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Department of Energy’s Office of Science called for in the ACI, this delaying of the appropriations process—effectively starting it over in the new Congress—is seen as imperiling those hard-earned gains. Though it is likely the Democratic leadership will ultimately help enact the funding increases called for in the ACI—indeed, the Democratic Innovation Agenda announced by Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in December 2005 expresses strong support for increases along the lines of those proposed in the ACI, and she has already mentioned funding basic research to aid competitiveness as a top priority for her in the new Congress—the failure to pass the appropriations bills in a timely manner means that NSF, NIST, and DOE Office of Science have effectively “lost” much of those proposed increases for FY 07.

While it is clear that the Democratic leadership is generally very supportive of both the ACI and the idea that the country must take steps now to ensure its role as a dominant global competitor in the future, there are distinct differences in approach that will likely manifest themselves now that the majority has shifted. The President’s ACI includes calls for increased funding for research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and computer science, as well as improvements to science and math education efforts, revised worker training and visa policies, and permanent extension of the R&D tax credit. Expect the Democrats to embrace some elements of the President’s plan—such as the research and education pieces—and distance themselves from other elements, such as changes to visa policies that might encourage the recruitment of highly skilled immigrants.

Bart Gordon (D-TN), the new chair of the House Science Committee, provided some evidence of this slight shift in emphasis when he and his senior committee staff briefed a small group of business and academic associations about his committee’s priorities for the coming year. While he embraced the President’s call for increases to NSF’s research budget, he expressed concern that NSF’s education efforts were not receiving comparable attention. He expected to use his newly named “Subcommittee on Research and Science Education” to make science education a centerpiece of any competitiveness legislation that finds its way through the committee.

Gordon and his staff also focused significant attention on the “workforce side” of competitiveness, indicating that they really want to understand “research and development’s role in job creation and in building a globally competitive workforce.” The committee will be particularly interested in how offshore outsourcing will affect the U.S. workforce—an issue they indicated will be the subject of a number of hearings in the coming year.

One other notable change Gordon said he planned to make to the committee is the reestablishment of an “Investigations and Oversight” subcommittee. This subcommittee would serve as a focal point for the committee’s efforts in uncovering “waste, fraud and abuse” at federal science agencies. It would also provide a forum for investigating the “politicization of science” and policy questions such as the desirability of reconstituting the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which was shut down shortly after Republicans assumed the majority in the House in 1994.

Each of these areas—a greater emphasis on NSF’s education efforts, an increased focus on workforce issues like outsourcing, and increased attention to investigations and oversight—represents a change in approach from the Science Committee of the 109th Congress, and could change the way science issues “play” in Congress. Focusing on the reductions to NSF’s Education and Human Resources directorate may impact planned increases to NSF’s research accounts, for example. Congressional focus on offshore outsourcing will put increased attention on the state of IT R&D and IT education in the new Congress. A focus on the politicization of science could highlight partisanship rather than science—a marked change for the largely bipartisan, nearly-always-unanimous Science Committee. It is unclear whether any of these changes would have a long-term positive or negative effect on the research community.

On the whole, however, members of the science advocacy community appear optimistic about long-term dealings with a Democratic Congress. The Democratic Innovation Agenda is very similar to what became the President’s ACI. Both are heavily influenced by the National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which made specific recommendations for Congress and the Administration on how to protect future U.S. competitiveness. Congressional Democrats might place more emphasis on federal education efforts like NSF EHR and “applied and industrial” R&D (like NIST, the Advanced Technology Program, and Manufacturing Extension Partnership program) than Congressional Republicans have, and may place more emphasis on workforce/offshoring issues. Otherwise, they are likely to share a similar commitment to increasing the research budgets of NSF, NIST, DOE, National Institutes of Health, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA.

With signs from the Administration indicating another strong budget request for the science agencies that are the target of ACI for FY 08, the research community will be looking for Congressional Democrats to show the same commitment to fundamental research they showed while in the minority. But first, Congress needs to finish its work for FY 07.

As always, for the latest news and analysis about Congress and the federal budget for computing research, check CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog:


After CRN went to press, the Democratic congressional leadership announced that they intend to extend the continuing resolution passed as a stopgap for FY 2007 from February 15, 2007, through the end of the year. Citing the difficulty of passing both the FY 07 and FY 08 appropriations bills in the same calendar year, Democratic appropriators instead decided on a CR for FY 07 that will eliminate congressional earmarks and fund agencies at FY 06 or lower levels, freeing them to begin work on the FY 08 appropriations process. At this writing, we do not yet know whether the ACI-related increases planned for FY 07 will merit a special exception to the Democrats' CR plan. Check CRA's Computing Research Policy Blog for the latest information.



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