Congress passes authorization bills for federal agencies and programs in order to set policies and provide guidance on funding levels for the next two or more fiscal years. Because the actual dollars are distributed by annual appropriations bills, the power of authorization bills has always been somewhat limited. They are often ignored all together in the Senate, where many senators sit on both authorizing and appropriations committees and view authorizing bills as somewhat redundant. Their power has further waned with the increasing tendency in a partisan Congress to set agency policies through appropriations bills as well. This trend has been vigorously resisted by authorizing committees in the House of Representatives, none more than the House Science Committee. Every two years, the Science Committee authorizes all the programs within its jurisdiction then watches as many of them are ignored by the Senate. The current crop of science authorization bills cover fiscal years (FY) 2000 and 2001, and they are being debated even as Congress also debates the FY 2000 appropriations bills, the very appropriations bills that the authorization process is meant to affect. Somewhat ironically, the Senate passed legislation in the last Congress to double the federal investment in research over the next twelve years, and senators are currently seeking to pass similar legislation again this year. An AGI update on the "doubling" effort is available on this site.
Most Recent Action
Back in September 2000, the House-Senate Conference Committee released its report (H. Rept. 106-843) on H.R. 1654, the NASA Reauthorization Act. The conference's bill authorizes the next three years of funding for NASA programs: $13.6 billion for the current fiscal year (FY 2000), $14.2 billion for FY 2001, and $14.6 billion for FY 2002. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Chair of the House Science Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill, is quoted in the committee press release as saying, "Overall, we're recommending a one percent increase over the President's request for NASA funding in fiscal years 2001 and 2002, principally in the areas of science, aeronautics, and technology. These critical investments will continue developing our knowledge in areas ranging from the growth of cancer cells to the El Nino weather effect on Earth and the nature of black holes deep within out universe." The committee also released a summary of the conference report that shows the bill would authorize a 2.5% increase in FY 2001 and FY 2002 for the Science, Aeronautics and Technology programs, including the Earth Science Enterprise, Space Science, Areo-Space Technology, and Academic Programs. The House passed the revised bill on September 14th in a 399-17 vote, and the Senate passed it the following month by unanimous consent. President Clinton signed the bill into law on October 30, 2000. A statement by the president commends the bipartisan approach that Congress took in working on this bill, but voices the president's disappointment that the bill "limits NASA's flexibility to pursue a promising commercial habitation module for the International Space Station."
Prior Action in the 106th Congress
Earthquake Hazards Reduction Authorization Act: On April 21, the House passed H.R. 1184, the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Authorization Act of 1999, which authorizes a total of $469.6 million for earthquake readiness programs. In addition to a two-year authorization for earthquake programs at the four participating agencies -- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Science Foundation (NSF), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) -- the bill also includes five-year authorizations for two new projects: The Advanced Seismic Research and Monitoring System and the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). See the AGI website for a more in-depth discussion on the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Authorization Act (http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/nehrp.html).
NASA Authorization Bills: The NASA Authorization Act of 1999 (H.R. 1654) passed the House on May 19, 1999, and a similar bill (S. 342), was marked up in committee in the Senate but still awaits action on the floor. There are, however, some differences between the two. The House has approved the full FY 2000 request for the International Space Station at $2,482.7 million, while the Senate has gone under the requested amount at 2,282.7 million and capped the amount available for assembly at $21.9 billion. The Administration request for FY 2000 Earth Sciences funding was $1,459.1 million, and the Senate authorized this full amount. The House withdrew funds for the High Performance Computing and Communications program, intending to authorize this in a separate bill, and terminates the Vice-President Gore-proposed Triana program entirely. That program would launch a satellite for the purpose of imaging the sun side of the earth. Republicans have questioned the scientific validity of Triana and have ridiculed the proposal as Gore's screen saver for the planet. The total House authorization was $1,382.5 million for FY 2000.
National Science Foundation: On July 12, 2000, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on the reauthorization of the NSF. In attendance were the committee chair, Jim Jeffords (R-VT), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the ranking member, and Patty Murray (D-WA). They heard testimony from Dr. Rita Colwell, the director of National Science Foundation and from representatives of various formal and informal science organizations about the role NSF has played in their funding. All witnesses testified to the outstanding successes of NSF to promote science, math and technology to all levels of the educational spectrum, and its contributions to maintaining international U.S. leadership in those areas. A Dear Colleague letter was submitted by Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond (R-MO) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) on the same day as the hearing proposing to double the NSF's budget over the next five fiscal years. More information is available on the proposal and on other budget-doubling attempts on the AGI website.
Department of Energy: On May 25, 1999, the House Science Committee marked up H.R. 1655, the Department of Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1999. Of particular interest to earth scientists in both industry and academia, H.R. 1655 authorizes $698.8 millionfor FY 2000 and $733.740 million for FY 2001 for "Basic Energy Sciences," which included $26.056 million for FY 2000 and $27.359 million for FY 2001 for Geosciences Research. This amount was substantially less than the $888.084 million requested by the Administration for Basic Energy Sciences in FY 2000. In addition, $50.574 million for FY 2000 and $52.091 million for FY 2001 was authorized for Oil Technology and $107.916 million for FY 2000 and $108.831 million for FY 2001 was authorized for Gas, in both cases with dollars being earmarked for exploration. Also in both cases, these figures were up from the FY 2000 Administration budget requests. $50.166 million had been requested for Oil Technology and $105.314 million for Gas.
A series of amendments were introduced and voted on, including funding for wireless power transmissions research, biodiesel fuel research, and gas hydrate research, of which all three passed. The first point of contention was raised around a Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) amendment authorizing funding for renewable energy programs. The amendment failed along party lines amidst considerable debate over the authorization versus appropriations process and the roll of budget caps.
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) introduced the next amendment, which was to restore funding for the construction of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). All committee members present praised the scientific value of the SNS project, but considerable displeasure over past management problems was voiced by the Republicans, led by committee chair Sensenbrenner. Costello urged passage of the amendment, believing that failure to do so would "kill the project." Bringing up memories of the Superconducting Super Collider, Sensenbrenner said he supported the SNS but did not want to start funding construction "until we clear up the questions that have been raised. The last thing we need to do is start up this project and see it go in the gutter." The amendment went to vote, with 17 yeas and 17 nays. A tie vote equaled a dead amendment and the committee broke for lunch.
Over the lunch break, however, a compromise was reached and a new SNS amendment was introduced, addressing many of Sensenbrenner's concerns. The SNS was resurrected with a 28-0 vote, and moves now, along with the rest of H.R. 1655, to the House floor.
The congressional budget process requires that all moneys appropriated for a given purpose must first be authorized. The appropriately named House and Senate Committees on Appropriations handle the disbursement process, but the other standing committees of the House and Senate are responsible for authorizing the disbursement. The House and Senate Budget Committees oversee this process and set the overall spending limits.
The House Science Committee authorizes spending for scientific R&D in the agencies within the committee's jurisdiction, and for many years has made a priority of passing science authorization bills. There has been just one problem -- the Senate ignores them. Two principal factors are at play here. Foremost perhaps is the blurring of lines between appropriations and authorization in the Senate. Many senators sit on both the Appropriations subcommittee and the authorizing committee for a given agency. Senators tend to view yearly authorizations as redundant, relying instead on the original enabling legislation for each agency. In the House, Appropriations is an exclusive committee, meaning that members on that committee serve on no other, and hence the authorization process is the only means of input for many representatives. The other principal obstacle in the 104th Congress was the insistence of then Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker (R-PA; since retired) on passing omnibus authorization bills. With no equivalent committee in the Senate, these bills were too unwieldy and were never taken up in that chamber.
In 1997, new House Science Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) hoped that splitting up the bills would increase the likelihood of their ultimate passage. On April 11th, Sensenbrenner and his subcommittee chairmen introduced eight separate authorization bills, which were marked up by the Science Committee on April 16th:
1271, FAA Research, Engineering, and Development Authorization Act
H.R. 1272, Fire Administration Authorization Act of 1997
H.R. 1273, National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 1997
H.R. 1274, National Institute of Standards and Technology Authorization Act of 1997
H.R. 1275, Civilian Space Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1998 and 1999
H.R. 1276, Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act of 1997
H.R. 1277, Department of Energy Civilian Research and Development Act of 1997
H.R. 1278, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Authorization Act of 1997
The House Science Committee was proud of authorizing all the programs in its jurisdiction, but ultimately only 3 of the 8 bills were ever signed into law. The NSF, NIST, and FAA Research, Engineering, and Development authorizing acts managed to make it through both the Houes and the Senate to be signed by Clinton. Of the remaining 5 bills, the NASA and Fire Administration authorization acts made it through the House but were both referred to the Senate Commerce Committee where they never again saw the light of day. The remaining three had multiple versions of the bills reported by other committees sharing jurisdiction. It fell to the House Rules Committee to decide which version to take to the floor, a decision that was never made. The bills died before even being voted on by the full House. The AGI website has more information on the authorizing process from the 105th Congress (http://www.agiweb.org/legis105/sciauth.html).
In contrast to the Senate's traditional lack of interest in science authorization bills, several key senators have been spearheading efforts to pass legislation that would authorize a doubling of the federal investment in research over the next dozen years. Last year, the Senate passed S. 2217, but the measure failed to make any progress in the House. This year's equivalent bill is S. 296, introduced by Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) and now with over 40 bipartisan co-sponsors. Again, senators are working to get an equivalent House bill but must contend with the strong opposition of House Science Committee Chair Sensenbrenner, who dismisses the bill as a "feel-good" measure that does not produce the kind of tangible results that his more specific authorization bills do. Furthermore, he charges that S. 296 gives members an easy vote for science allowing them to appear pro-science while voting for much more limited appropriations. Because of Sensenbrenner's opposition, senators are seeking to develop a counterpart bill through the House Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Institutes of Health. For an AGI update on this issue, see http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis106/doubling99.html.
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at email@example.com.
Contributed by AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Scott Broadwell and Audrey Slesinger, and Kasey Shewey White and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs
Posted June 15, 1999; Last updated November 4, 2000
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