[Published originally in the May 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 3, pp. 3, 24.]
Initial Signs Not Encouraging for Science Funding in FY 05
Congress Begins Work on Election-Year Budget by Flat-Funding Science Programs
By Peter Harsha
In a sign that this year promises to be difficult for advocates of increased federal funding for research and development, separate fiscal year 2005 budget resolutions passed by both the House and the Senate in late March call for freezing funding for basic scientific research and development at current levels.
While funding for research and development at the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) received increases in the resolutions, neither the House nor Senate provided any significant increase to the "General Science, Space and Technology" account-a $23 billion account that includes funding for the National Science Foundation (NSF), basic science at the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Budget committee members in both chambers argued that economic realities forced them to make difficult choices within the resolution.
"Even before the end of last year, the 'must do' list for writing this year's budget was already becoming clear," House Budget Committee Chair Jim Nussle (R-IA) said. "This budget had to get our spending under control, and had to get to work reducing the deficit."
But even some of the resolution's supporters had significant concerns about the lack of support for basic scientific R&D. "As a nation, we cannot afford to starve basic science research and education," said Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), who voted for the measure. "Continued underfunding of scientific research and education will erode America's technical and scientific preeminence, diminish our ability to compete economically, and undermine our children's economic prosperity and national security." Ehlers indicated he would work throughout the appropriations process to ensure adequate funding for NSF, NIST, NASA, and DOE.
On the Senate side, former Senate Budget Chair Pete Domenici (R-NM), now chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted that Congress had not given the same priority to basic research in the physical sciences as they had given in past years to the life sciences funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During the Senate budget debate, Domenici compared the aggressive approach the Senate took towards funding NIH during its recently completed five-year budget doubling (from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion in FY 2003). "I am concerned," Domenici said, "that we have collectively failed to be as aggressive when it comes to funding basic scientific research in other agencies."
"Basic research is the engine that makes our national defense, homeland security, and economic superiority possible."
The Congressional Budget Resolution-the compromise legislation that will result after the Senate and House work out the differences in their respective bills (which had yet to happen at press time)-is the first step of the legislative branch in the year-long process that will ultimately produce the 13 appropriations bills that comprise all annual federal discretionary spending. Although the House and Senate Appropriations Committees ultimately have final discretion over how federal dollars get spent on an agency-by-agency and program-by-program basis, the budget resolution establishes the overall spending number with which the appropriators will work. The bill does have symbolic value, however, in that it represents at a "macro" level what the Budget committees, and ultimately the Congress, feel should have priority in funding.
Even as the House and Senate budget committee members met to work out a compromise resolution, appropriations committees in both chambers had already begun holding hearings to set the context for the FY 2005 appropriations bills. Because this year is both a congressional and a presidential election year, the legislative environment is a little different than usual. Congress is obligated to pass all 13 appropriations bills before the start of the new fiscal year October 1, 2004, or risk having to pass a "continuing resolution" that keeps government operating by funding it at the current rate until the appropriations bills are agreed upon. However, its track record for achieving that goal is not good. Work on both the FY 2003 and FY 2004 appropriations spilled into January of the following year.
As the election in November edges closer, the political calculations for delaying the appropriations bills get more complicated. Ideally, Members of Congress generally prefer wrapping up the bills as early as possible before the election so they can return to their districts for the home stretch of their respective campaigns. Any delay beyond October 1 will cut into valuable campaign time. Yet the leadership of either side might see political advantage in delaying the appropriations bills until after the elections-especially if the bills contain controversial provisions that might be uncomfortable campaign issues, or if they foresee an election outcome that might make their position stronger post-election.
To head off this possibility, the appropriations committees in both chambers have begun discussing ways of "packaging" the appropriations bills that might expedite their passage. One idea calls for considering all 13 bills individually at the committee level, then bundling them into a single "omnibus" bill for consideration by the whole chamber-effectively limiting the debate on any one of the bills. A less drastic suggestion also being considered is the possibility of bundling three bills at a time into so-called "mini-buses" for consideration. A third option, slightly more extreme but no less seriously considered, is to forgo the appropriations bills altogether and pass a "continuing resolution" that would apply through FY 2005. This would effectively freeze all federal funding (unless otherwise specified in the continuing resolution) at the FY 2004 level and prevent any new program starts. It was not clear at press time which, if any, of these approaches is most likely to be chosen.
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