Election 2016: Outlook for Science in the ‘Lame Duck’ and 115th Congresses

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With Republicans winning one-party control of the federal government in last Tuesday’s election, the party now has more latitude to advance its priorities. Implications for science will begin to unfold in the “lame duck” session of Congress that opened yesterday.

In last Tuesday’s general election, the American people chose Republican candidate Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States, and Republican candidates succeeded in retaining a majority of seats in both chambers of Congress. Although their majorities in the 115th Congress will be slightly smaller than those in the current Congress, Republicans will maintain control of floor and committee agendas in both the House and Senate. With one-party control of the Executive and Legislative Branches, the GOP will have more latitude to advance its priorities, with implications for the future of U.S. science.

Outlook for the ‘lame duck’ session

The initial policy impacts of the election will unfold during the “lame duck” session of Congress, which began yesterday and runs through Dec. 16, although it could be extended further into the month.

Prior to the election, congressional leadership had planned to pass appropriations legislation in the lame duck session to fund the federal government through the end of fiscal year 2017, and the primary question legislators were debating was the appropriate vehicle(s) for the spending legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also stated the day after the election that he would still like to reach a final agreement on fiscal year 2017 spending before the end of the current Congress.

However, the election outcome increases uncertainty about this path forward. A number of Republicans, including the leadership of the influential House Republican Study Committee, support passing another continuing resolution and handing the job of finalizing fiscal year 2017 spending off to the new Congress and the incoming Trump Administration, which they believe will be more supportive of conservative funding priorities and policy riders. Furthermore, Republican congressional leaders have indicated that they are awaiting input from Trump and his transition team on how they would prefer Congress proceed.

The current continuing resolution will expire on Dec. 9. For details on the fiscal year 2017 House and Senate appropriations proposals for the science agencies, see FYI's Federal Science Budget Tracker.

More clear is the outlook for the “Energy Policy Modernization Act,” a major energy policy bill with multiple science-related provisions. House and Senate authorizers had been negotiating for many months to craft a compromise, but some reports now indicate that Republicans are likely to opt to not act on the bill and instead start over next year when they have greater leverage.

However, there are some major science-related bills that may make it into law before the end of the current Congress. McConnell identified passage of the bipartisan “21st Century Cures Act” as his second priority for the lame duck session. The bill contains numerous provisions which aim to enhance drug discovery, development, and approval, and could provide a large research funding boost for the National Institutes of Health. This bill is also a potential vehicle for providing funds for the Obama Administration’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

Other candidates include this year’s “National Defense Authorization Act,” the annual defense policy bill which has made it into law for 54 consecutive years, and the Senate's “NASA Transition Authorization Act,” a bipartisan bill specifically crafted to ensure mission and programmatic stability at NASA through the change in administration. The Obama Administration has threatened to veto both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA, but President Obama’s leverage is now considerably diminished. If he does veto the bill, it could be sent to newly inaugurated President Trump early in the next Congress.

Also pending is a set of broad research policy bills: the House’s “America COMPETES Act,” which passed that chamber on a mostly party line vote, and the Senate’s “American Innovation and Competitiveness Act,” their bipartisan take on the subject that the Commerce Committee approved this June. It is possible that the two sides will try to craft a version that can pass both chambers, although the time remaining is very limited.

Changes in the 115th Congress

When the 115th Congress begins on Jan. 3, the Senate will consist of at least 51 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats (the runoff election for a Louisiana Senate seat is on Dec. 10). The House will consist of at least 238 Republicans and 193 Democrats, with the holders of a few seats yet to be determined.

Leadership of key science-related authorization and appropriations committees is expected to be mostly unchanged, with a few notable exceptions. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), ranking member of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, lost his reelection bid. In addition, his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a longtime champion of science in Congress, is retiring this year. It is not yet clear who will assume their roles on these subcommittees, which are responsible for drafting the legislation which funds NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Due to term limits, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) must give up his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, an authorization committee for the Department of Energy. Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL) and Greg Walden (R-OR) are vying for the position. Notably, Shimkus is a vocal proponent of disposing the nation’s nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, the prospects for which have increased given the retirement of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) at the end of this year.

Outlook for the 115th Congress

What long-term changes await science funding over the coming years is unclear. In recent decades, total federal R&D funding has tended to rise and fall in step with changes in overall discretionary spending—the section of the budget that funds almost all federal R&D. If this pattern holds, Trump’s “penny plan” proposal to reduce non-defense discretionary spending by one percent per year could lead to smaller budgets for the federal science agencies, while his plan to significantly increase defense spending to “rebuild” the military could boost defense R&D.

Republican administrations have often been supportive of increases to federal R&D funding, and many Republicans express a high opinion of science in general and regard funding basic research in particular as an important function of government. However, in recent years Republicans have prioritized budgetary restraint, enforced by budget caps set in the Budget Control Act of 2011, leaving little room in the discretionary budget for funding increases they would otherwise support.

Another factor likely to bear on future funding is that Trump has promised a large tax cut that would decrease revenue, as well as a large boost to defense and infrastructure spending, actions that would likely lead to larger deficits or budget cuts to other government programs.

It is not yet clear what targeted funding shifts could be made, but one possibly relevant tea leaf is that Trump has promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure construction program. While the proposal appears to target public works projects, ScienceInsider reports that some science policy experts feel it is possible the scope of this initiative could be expanded to include scientific facilities and other research infrastructure.

Overall funding levels aside, Republicans may continue to target specific areas of science for funding changes or increased oversight. For example, this year’s House appropriations bill for the Department of Energy would increase funding for nuclear energy and fossil energy R&D and decrease renewable energy R&D. Such spending prioritizations may have a greater chance of being enacted during the Trump Administration.

Most obviously, both Trump and many Republican lawmakers are deeply opposed to President Obama’s policies on climate change. Trump has already vowed to pull out of the Paris climate accord, and congressional Republicans have long protested Obama’s executive actions on climate. They have also targeted climate science at federal agencies for spending cuts and oversight investigations. In particular, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has built a reputation on aggressive oversight and criticism of science at NOAA, NSF, and the Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to remain chair of the House Science Committee next year. With Mikulski no longer atop the Senate Appropriations Committee in the new year, earth science programs will have less of a bulwark against funding cuts at a time when they are expected to face stronger political headwinds.

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