Boiling mad. House legislators cut funding for an NSF grant to study the effects of climate change on tea plantations.

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Boiling mad. House legislators cut funding for an NSF grant to study the effects of climate change on tea plantations.

NSF Dodges Most House Amendments, Census Bureau Not So Lucky

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has withstood a freewheeling assault on its 2015 budget by the U.S. House of Representatives. But the Census Bureau took it on the chin.

Last night, legislators completed 2 days of debate on a $51 billion spending bill that covers those two agencies and many others, including NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And when the dust had settled, lawmakers had pared only $10 million from the $237 million increase allocated NSF in a bill drafted by Representative Frank Wolf (R–VA).

The large increase—combined with the fact that the $7.4 billion figure was $153 million above the White House’s request for the agency—has made NSF a tempting target this year for legislators looking for more money for their favorite programs. But NSF’s reputation for excellence seemed to carry the day. To wit:

  • A proposal by Representative Paul Broun (R–GA) to take $67 million from the agency’s management account and return it to the U.S. Treasury was voted down.

  • The chair of the House science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R–VA), did succeed in blocking a proposed $15 million increase in 2015 for its $257 million social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE) directorate. But under their amendment, the money would be redistributed among four other research directorates and NSF’s top line wouldn’t drop.

Smith has repeatedly labeled dozens of SBE grants as a “frivolous use of taxpayer money,” and the science committee this week backed a $106 million cut to what SBE should be allowed to spend as part of a reauthorization of NSF programs. But a rumored amendment that would actually cut its 2015 appropriations by a similar amount failed to materialize. And many observers saw the amendment’s narrow margin of victory, 208 to 201, as a sign that even Smith’s much milder alternative is not wildly popular among his colleagues.

  • Representative Matt Salmon (R–AZ) won approval for his amendment to block NSF from spending any money next year on a research project to study how climate change affects the quality of tea grown in China and sold worldwide. The grant was awarded by NSF’s program on the dynamics of coupled natural and human systems. However, under the terms of the $931,000 grant—made last year to a team led by biologist Colin Orians of Tufts University, all the money has been committed up front. So Salmon’s amendment appears to be a pyrrhic victory.

  • An amendment by Representative Mike Thompson (D–CA) would cut $10 million from the $338 million request for its salaries and operations account to help finance a $19 million increase in funding for an existing program that conducts rapid background checks on those purchasing firearms. Coming after the latest horrific attack in Santa Barbara, California, the amendment passed easily, 260 to 145, winning the votes of roughly half of the body’s Republicans.

Census Bureau

While NSF escaped relatively unscathed from the marathon debate, the Census Bureau was not so fortunate. As Terri Ann Lowenthal has explained in her excellent blog, many legislators see the statistical agency as a piggy bank this year after the Obama administration asked for a $212 million boost in its $1.2 billion budget to continue preparing for the 2020 decennial census.

The money is intended to continue piloting cost-saving improvements to the next census, which lawmakers have told CB officials must not cost more than the $13 billion spent on the 2010 census. But Wolf’s appropriations subcommittee had already lopped off $105 million from the agency’s three biggest programs, the decennial census, the American Community Survey (ACS), and the economic census. Amendments approved Wednesday and Thursday would pare another $133 million for use by various other programs. They include $113 million for more police officers, $12 million for better weather forecasting, and an additional $3 million for protecting the habitats of Pacific salmon, an exercise that includes counting them.

The popularity of the policing program put Wolf and other supporters of the overall bill in a bind. Although Wolf threw his backing behind several of the amendments, his frustration with the members’ apparent disregard for the planning needs of the Census Bureau eventually boiled over.

“Madam Chair, I announce that we are going to postpone the 2020 census and move it to 2021, or maybe to 2022,” Wolf declared at one point Wednesday evening. “I am going to accept the amendment, but if we keep taking [money] from the census, there will be no census.”

The House also approved an amendment from Representative Ted Poe (R–TX) that would make ACS voluntary. Poe has argued that ACS, a rolling monthly survey of some 3 million residents each year, is intrusive. But demographers, statisticians, and industry leaders have condemned the idea, saying that more people will have to be surveyed to offset poor response rates and maintain the quality of the survey, which in 2005 essentially replaced what had been the long form of the decennial census. The data help the federal government allocate $415 billion each year in entitlement programs to states and localities.

What’s next? On Tuesday, the Senate counterpart to Wolf’s appropriations subcommittee, led by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), will draft its version of the spending bill. The full Senate committee, which Mikulski also chairs, is expected to adopt it on Thursday. Then the two sides will have to strike a compromise—but possibly not until after the November elections. The research community is rooting for Wolf and Mikulski to find a way to make the most onerous amendments disappear. (A similar plan to make ACS voluntary that the House passed in 2012 died in that fashion, for example.) In the meantime, advocates are telling their constituents to remain on high alert.