Science Appropriations Leaders of the 115th Congress: Many Familiar Faces and Some New

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Publication date: 
15 February 2017

The House and Senate have announced who will lead the appropriations subcommittees for the 115th Congress, and there are a few new faces atop the four subcommittees that oversee the lion’s share of federal R&D spending.

Both chambers of Congress have decided who will lead the influential appropriations committees and their 12 subcommittees, which together are responsible for drafting legislation that divides up over $1 trillion in discretionary federal spending every year. Although all members of Congress vote on the final spending bills, the appropriations committees play a central role in shaping the federal budget.

Leaders of the appropriations subcommittees have considerable influence over the budgets of the departments and agencies under their jurisdiction. Four of these subcommittees together oversee the vast majority of federal R&D spending: the Energy and Water Development (Energy-Water); Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS); Labor, Health and Human Services, Education (Labor-HHS); and Defense Subcommittees.


Four of the appropriations subcommittees control almost all federal R&D spending.

 (Image credit – AAAS)

Below is a summary of the leadership and R&D-related jurisdiction of each of these subcommittees. Consult the subcommittees’ webpages for information on their full membership and jurisdictions.

Commerce, Justice, Science

The CJS Subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) return as chairs, but both ranking members are new this year due to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) retiring and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) losing reelection. The new Democratic leaders are Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Rep. José Serrano of New York.

Both Culberson and Shelby have been strong supporters of various NASA programs. Culberson’s district is close to Johnson Space Center, which manages the International Space Station and various other human exploration programs. Alabama is home to Marshall Space Flight Center, which leads the development of the Space Launch System and performs hardware testing for certain scientific missions such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Culberson has been a particularly vocal advocate for a mission to Europa as part of NASA’s Ocean Worlds Exploration Program. Speaking about the mission at a Feb. 7 event, he remarked “I’m convinced that that mission will result in the discovery of life in that ocean. That’s the magic moment that we need to ignite a passion for the American space program.”

Culberson provided some insights into his current views on NASA, NSF, and OSTP in a November 2016 interview with Science magazine. Asked whether he would like scientific facilities to be included as part of an infrastructure spending package, Culberson replied:

I think it’s important that the United States maintains its leadership in particle physics, and I think it’s unfortunate that we have not. And we have also fallen behind in building the world’s biggest and faster supercomputers. We need to maintain American leadership in astronomy. I’d like to see NSF more deeply involved in the construction and design of the Giant Magellan Telescope, for example. And the radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and at Green Bank are getting a little elderly. In order to preserve American leadership in critical areas of scientific discovery and technological achievement, we will need to make the necessary investments in scientific infrastructure. And that will require strong support for NSF and NASA.

He also predicted in the interview that NASA’s earth science activities would continue to have strong support in Congress and said that talk of moving the program out of NASA was “very speculative.”

Reorganization proposals aside, concerns about the outlook for earth science are partially due to the retirement of Mikulski, who was a champion of federal earth science programs, including climate research. Democrat Chris Van Hollen won her Senate seat and will be a member of the CJS subcommittee, but it may take him years to acquire a similar level of influence. Maryland is home to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as well as NOAA’s headquarters and other NOAA facilities.

As for the new faces atop the panel, Serrano and Shaheen’s statements on being appointed as the new subcommittee ranking members only briefly touched on science. Serrano said that the science agencies in the subcommittee’s jurisdiction “fund the research that help our nation remain the premier economy in the world.” Shaheen remarked that her top priorities will include supporting programs that “help local law enforcement, monitor and combat climate change, invest in life-saving research, protect New Hampshire’s fishing industry, and promote New Hampshire’s small businesses.”

Although neither Serrano nor Shaheen has a long record on science issues, their recent actions in Congress may lend some insight into what their specific priorities might be. For example, Serrano successfully pushed to include language in the fiscal year 2017 House CJS appropriations bill that would direct NSF to establish a $30 million grant program in support of STEM education at Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Explaining his support for the provision, Serrano remarked,

STEM jobs are the jobs of the future and crucial to U.S. competitiveness. We need to ensure Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic, are adequately prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are available and that will only continue to increase in the future. This STEM grant program will steer millions in funding through the National Science Foundation to schools throughout the country focused on serving Hispanic students.

Shaheen, who has been the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee since 2015, is an advocate for policies to improve small business innovation. In particular, she was the primary sponsor of a bill that would have increased the percentage of extramural R&D budgets that agencies must set aside for the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. Members of the House Science Committee opposed this proposal, arguing that it could harm the agencies’ core research programs.

Energy and Water Development

The Energy-Water Subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes the entire Department of Energy, which is the largest funder of fundamental physical sciences in the U.S. Its leadership is unchanged from the previous Congress, as Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) return as the chairs and ranking members, respectively.

With the exception of Kaptur, each has at least one DOE national laboratory in their home state. Simpson’s district contains Idaho National Lab, which specializes in nuclear energy R&D. Tennessee is home to Oak Ridge National Lab, a multipurpose science lab that plays a leading role in various DOE initiatives such as the Exascale Computing Project. And California hosts two Office of Science labs — Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the SLAC National Accelerator Lab — as well as two multipurpose national security labs — Lawrence Livermore and Sandia-Livermore.

Kaptur has expressed interest in how DOE’s 17 national labs can better interact with states that do not have labs. “Coming from an area without a national lab, as most members do, I continue to wrestle with how the labs can play a significant transformational role for organizations beyond their boundaries,” she said in a hearing last year.

In 2014, when Feinstein was chair, the subcommittee directed a comprehensive review of the DOE lab system by creating a Commission to Review the Effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories. At a 2015 hearing convened to discuss the commission’s conclusions, Alexander conveyed his overall confidence in the labs:

While we're looking for ways to improve the laboratories, I think it's important to acknowledge that every other country in the world would give their right arm to have these 17 labs as an engine of economic growth and national defense, and ways of improving the quality of life and health for the people in their countries. And in many ways they're our secret weapon in a world that is increasingly competitive.

Alexander has been a strong supporter of DOE’s basic research programs and has advocated for doubling funding of basic energy research. In addition, both Alexander and Simpson are proponents of nuclear energy, and Alexander held two hearings last year on ways to revitalize the U.S. nuclear industry. Feinstein, on the other hand, is skeptical about the need for additional nuclear capacity in the U.S., but has found common ground with Alexander through their efforts to craft a solution to the nation’s nuclear waste storage stalemate.

One specific issue that may well crop up again this year is the U.S.’s role in ITER, the international nuclear fusion facility being built in France. Alexander and Feinstein have been deeply skeptical of ITER’s value in the past, and for multiple years in a row have proposed zeroing out funding for the project. Explaining their decision to do so again last year, Feinstein remarked, "In order to boost domestic science programs, we made the tough decision to cut funding for the ITER project. This decision was carefully considered and absolutely necessary in order to make key investments in our national laboratories and universities."

Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education

The Labor-HHS Subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes the entirety of the National Institutes of Health and its R&D budget of over $30 billion. In the coming years, the panel will play a key role in deciding whether the NIH funding increases promised by the 21st Century Cures Act will become a reality.

The leadership is unchanged from the previous Congress, as Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA) and Reps. Tom Cole (R-OK) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) return as the chairs and ranking members, respectively.


The Defense Subcommittee’s jurisdiction includes almost all defense spending, including over $70 billion in defense R&D. However, most of this money goes toward technology development, testing, and evaluation. Currently, DOD spends about $2 billion on basic research and about $5 billion on applied research annually.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) has taken the seat vacated by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who became chair of the full House Appropriations Committee, and will lead the committee alongside Ranking Member Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-ID). Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) return as chair and ranking member in the Senate.

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