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December 13, 2004

Could An Appropriations Reorganization Help U.S. Science?

As the FY 05 appropriations process demonstrated, the current organization of congressional appropriations subcommittees (and thus, appropriations bills) is a mess that puts science agencies at a disadvantage in the competition for federal dollars. The current structure is a mish-mash of jurisdictions that forces agencies that have little or nothing to do with each other to compete for the limited funds within each bill -- one bill pits the National Science Foundation and NASA against the Veteran's Administration and federal housing programs, for example, and in another, it's NIST and NOAA against the State Department. More often than not, in that competition the science agencies get the short end of the stick.

But there's an interesting proposal floating around DC to recast the appropriations panels to make their jurisdictions more sensible. Normally, a proposal to realign something as significant as the 13 appropriations committees would be dead on arrival -- especially a proposal like this one, which would reduce the number of subcommittees, and therefore subcommittee chairmen (called "cardinals" in deference to their power), from 13 to 10. But this one is being floated by the most powerful man in the House (and probably Congress), House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), and has the backing of the House GOP leadership.

Delay's motive in proposing the reorganization is apparently to realign the committees to represent GOP and Democratic themes, according to CQ's (sub. req'd) Andrew Taylor. So, there'd be a "Regulatory Agencies" subcommittee that would include agencies like OSHA, another that would combine all of the funding for Congress, the White House, and the Judicial branch, and another for traditionally Democratic priorities like public housing. In the few news reports I've seen on the proposal, there hasn't been any mention of a subcommittee combining all the non-defense agencies for science. But a subcommittee comprised of the civilian science agencies seems like a logical part of any reorganization -- and indeed, the rumors circulating around town suggest it is.

I haven't seen the proposal, but I think it would be reasonable to assume that a "Science" subcommittee would have to include appropriations for NIH, NSF, DOE Science, NASA, NIST, and NOAA -- basically all the major non-defense agencies involved in research. Obviously, a reorganization of that magnitude would change the dynamics of the appropriations process for science. I've been doing some thinking about whether it would be a positive or negative change. I'm coming to the conclusion that it would probably be positive overall...but I'm open to feedback from a different perspective. (Some of this may seem "inside baseball," but I think it's important.)

I think the first change is that the annual 302(b) budget allocation -- the divvying up of the funds authorized by the annual Congressional Budget Resolution (CBR) into spending limits for each appropriations bill -- would become much more meaningful for the scientific community. In the current system, we advocate for science in the CBR, but it's a little disconnected from the 302(b) process. We advocate for the highest possible "Function 250" line -- the "General Science, Space and Technology" line in the CBR -- but that doesn't obviously translate into increased funding for any of the appropriations bills we care about because that function is an aggregate that gets split among a whole bunch of different appropriations bills. We could advocate for the highest possible 302(b) allocation for specific approps bills, like the VA-HUD-Independent Agencies appropriation, which includes NSF and NASA funding, but there's no guarantee that any of that increased funding will go towards the science agencies in that bill.

With an Appropriations Subcommittee for Science there would be a corresponding 302(b) allocation for "Science." If we're looking to draw a bright line for science in the budget process, that's about as bright as it gets. There would be no doubt whether Congress was supportive of science in any particular year -- a look at the 302(b) allocation would tell you.

Drafting the Science Appropriations Bill each year would also be an interesting exercise. With essentially all of the civilian research agencies represented under one subcommittee's jurisdiction, there would be few hurdles to overcome to address issues of balance in the federal research portfolio, for example. Federal gov't focused too heavily on the life sciences? The committee would have the authority to reprogram money from NIH to NSF or DOE Science. Too much applied research and not enough basic? Reprogram NIST ATP money to NSF. Can't do that under the current arrangement. There may also be efficiencies that result from having everything in one place. Coordinating research activities across research agencies may be easier when agencies can't hide behind the stovepipes of different appropriations committees.

Of course, the appropriators could just as easily reverse the situation under this scenario -- reprogram NSF funds to NIST ATP to bolster applied research, NSF to NIH to bolster life sciences. But it seems to me that, in general, we'd be well-positioned in those debates. Under the current committee structure, those debates are essentially impossible.

So, I think it'd be a net positive for us and for science generally. But I'm open to arguments in opposition.

Assuming this reorganization is a good idea, the next question is what we in the science community can do to help it go forward. Politically, the odds are against reorganization, even with Delay and the House GOP Leadership strongly in favor. If it were up to the House alone, it would probably be a done deal. Delay has ensured himself significant political capital by delivering an increased majority to the GOP in the House via his almost single-handed redistricting push in Texas. In addition, there will be a new Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the 109th Congress, and the House leadership will play the primary role in deciding who that will be (it's looking like Ralph Regula (R-OH)), so they'll have considerable leverage in guaranteeing support for their proposal.

The real hurdle is the Senate. As a practical matter, any reorganization of the House Approps Committee will have to be mirrored in the Senate Approps Committee -- otherwise, conferencing the various appropriations bills will be chaos. The Senate will also have a new Appropriations Chair, Thad Cochran (R-MS), who has expressed opposition to the proposal. (In particular, he doesn't like the idea that it would eliminate the Agriculture Subcommittee, which he chaired). The opposition might not be unanimous across the Senate -- CQ says the Senate leadership apparently isn't "dismissive" of the idea -- but it's a long shot. I think if the science community does decide to weigh in in support of the proposal, focusing our efforts on the Senate -- Cochran in particular -- would be the best approach.

But even if the proposal doesn't have a great chance of going forward, I think it's beneficial for Congress to have the reorganization debate...especially if an element of that debate is the potential benefit to U.S. science a reorganization might bring.

Posted by PeterHarsha at December 13, 2004 09:25 PM | TrackBack
Posted to Funding | Policy