Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | August 10, 2017

House Passes “Minibus” Appropriations Bill; Senate Committee Approves National Science Foundation Funding Bill; Congress Adjourns for Summer Break; FASEB Calls on Scientists to Push for Raising Spending Caps

On July 27, in an attempt to keep the fiscal year (FY) 2018 appropriations process moving forward, the House of Representatives passed the Make America Secure Again Act (HR 3219) by a vote of 235-192. The package included the defense, military construction/veterans affairs, energy and water, and legislative branch spending bills and was nicknamed the “security minibus.” For research agencies, it contained $5.39 billion (same as current level) for the Department of Energy Office of Science and $691 million (a $16 million increase) for the Veterans Administration Medical and Prosthetic Research Program.

In addition to the funding for agencies covered by those four bills, HR 3219 provided $1.57 billion to begin construction of a wall on the United States-Mexico border.

Although still far behind their House counterparts, Senators made additional progress on the FY 2018 spending legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved three more bills, including the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) measure (S 1662) that funds the National Science Foundation (NSF). In disappointing news for the research community, the Senate recommended $7.3 billion for NSF, $161 million below the FY 2017 level. Within the NSF total, research programs received $5.9 billion, a reduction of $116 million from current funding.

Money was also provided for the design and construction of three new Regional Class Research Vessels. Reflecting on the fact that the overall allocation for the CJS Subcommittee was more than $3 billion lower than last year, Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) noted, “The Committee has made challenging but responsible decisions to produce a bill that strikes an appropriate balance between the competing priorities of law enforcement, national security, scientific advancement, and economic development.”

Capitol Hill is now extremely quiet, with both the House and Senate away for their summer breaks. Members of Congress will return to Washington September 5 and face a daunting list of legislative business to complete this fall, including passage of the budget bills. Prior to leaving for recess, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said the House will vote on an “omnibus” package that includes the “security minibus” and the remaining eight appropriations bills when they return.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is also expected to resume consideration of the spending bills in early September. Approval of the Senate Labor Health and Human Services Appropriations bill that funds the National Institutes of Health could take place September 7.

Regardless of whether the House passes an “omnibus” appropriations bill next month, the legislation cannot become law because the recommended spending levels exceed the existing FY 2018 budget caps. In addition, the inclusion of money for the border wall, along with numerous policy provisions opposed by Democrats, indicate that the House bill has little chance of Senate approval.

Despite the uncertainty, legislators will have to decide by September 30 how to keep government agencies funded beyond the end of FY 2017. Congress is expected to approve a temporary spending measure known as a “continuing resolution” (CR) before the end of September. Congressional leaders are rumored to be considering a three-month CR to provide additional time to reach a bipartisan agreement to raise the FY 2018 budget caps. Thus far, no substantive discussions between Republicans and Democrats about adjusting the spending limits have occurred. However, conversations are likely to begin next month.

Given what is at stake for biomedical research, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) recently held a webinar entitled “Advocacy in Your Backyard: How Scientists Can Make a Difference.” The session provided an update on the FY 2018 spending bills’ status and offered guidance to scientists in requesting meetings with their members of Congress while they are home for the summer recess.

FASEB is calling upon the research community to take urgent action. Advocates are encouraged to tell their senators and representatives to support efforts to increase the spending caps. Several new FASEB advocacy resources are available to help scientists reach out to their elected officials, including: