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US Congress leaves science agencies hanging — again

Lawmakers have just 11 working days to complete a 2019 funding plan before their 1 October deadline.

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The US Congress has made slow work of 2019 spending bills.Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Lawmakers in the US Congress are running out of time to pass a budget for the 2019 fiscal year, and have yet to resolve major disagreements over climate-change and environment programmes.

Although the federal government is funded through 30 September, politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives have just 11 working days before then to reach agreement on the funding for key science agencies. The budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are among those still being negotiated.

The Senate has approved two 2019 spending bills, and is expected to vote on more later this month. The House, which has adjourned for the month of August, has passed three. But the two chambers need to iron out the differences in their proposals before sending them to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

Because time is running out, science-policy experts expect that lawmakers will resort to funding some or all of the government through a temporary spending bill until after the midterm elections in early November. It’s not clear which agencies might have a final, full-year budget in place before the 2019 fiscal year starts on 1 October.

What is clear, however, is that Congress has largely ignored Trump’s desire to cut spending at several science agencies and eliminate some programmes.

“Congress so far has largely shielded a lot of these research programmes that were targeted,” says David Parkes, an associate with the research-and-development budget and policy programme at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

The White House has proposed cutting the NSF’s funding in 2019 by almost US$300 million compared with the $7.8 billion that the agency received this year. But Congress seems on track to raise NSF funding to an all-time high, Parkes says: the Senate has proposed a $300-million increase, to $8.1 billion, slightly below the House mark of $8.2 billion.

“It’s nice to see the House and Senate make NSF a priority for the first time in a long time,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

Both chambers would also continue support for NASA’s education programmes and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which is designed to hunt for dark energy and exoplanets. The Trump administration had sought to cut both entirely.

“It wasn’t clear initially how much the Republican Congress would take the lead from the Republican administration,” says Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.

The NIH, whose budget grew by roughly $2 billion in 2018, is poised for another big bump in 2019 if Congress gets its way. Trump has proposed $34.8 billion for the agency, a 7% cut from the current level. But the House wants to give the NIH $38.6 billion, $1.25 billion more than it received this year; the Senate proposal is $39.3 billion.

Slow slog

The US House of Representatives and the Senate have yet to finalize 2019 budgets for most science agencies, but they have rejected many cuts proposed by President Donald Trump. (All figures are in US$ millions.)

Agency

2018 appropriation

2019 White House request

2019 House Bill

2019 Senate Bill

Biomedical research and public health

National Institutes of Health

37,084

34,588

38,334

39,084

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

8,301

5,661

7,685

7,868

Food and Drug Administration

2,800

3,172

3,108

2,959

Physical sciences

National Science Foundation

7,767

7,472

8,175

8,068

NASA (science)

6,221

5,895

6,681

6,400

Department of Energy Office of Science

6,260

5,390

6,600

6,650

National Institute of Standards and Technology

1,199

629

985

1,037

Earth and environment

Environmental Protection Agency

8,058

6,192

7,958

8,058

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

5,909

4,553

5,159

5,483

US Geological Survey

1,148

860

1,167

1,148

Congress is divided on funding for key environmental agencies, however. For example, the House has endorsed the president’s plan to eliminate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s competitive climate-research grants and its Arctic research programme. The Senate wants to continue funding both.

Lawmakers in the House have also written several “poison-pill” provisions, or riders, on environmental issues into funding bills, says Yogin Kothari, senior Washington representative at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. For example, the House spending bill that includes the Fish and Wildlife Service would bar the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) under the Endangered Species Act — even if the government determined that the bird warranted those protections. Agricultural and oil and gas interests have fought against protections for the bird and its habitat.

Such provisions, as well as the chambers’ disagreement on environmental programmes, could slow the pace of negotiations as the House and Senate race to complete a 2019 funding plan, Kothari says.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House will probably have to soften their proposals on environmental issues to get the Senate’s agreement on a final budget deal, Zeitzer says. That’s because Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate, and they need to win Democratic support to assemble the 60 votes needed to approve most legislation.

As to whether the House will relent, “that’s the 68-bajillion-dollar question”, Zeitzer says. “All eyes will really be on the House.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05918-z
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