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By comparison. A different baseline allows Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) to emphasize increases for some NSF programs.

By comparison. A different baseline allows Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) to emphasize increases for some NSF programs.


Running the Numbers in the FIRST Bill

Legislators once liked to brag about increasing the budgets of their favorite programs. Today, in an era of fiscal constraints, most members of Congress prefer to remind voters how they have held down federal spending.

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) says he’s accomplished both goals—boosting spending in certain areas while remaining fiscally prudent—in his pending bill setting out policy for the National Science Foundation (NSF). But it takes some unorthodox arithmetic to square the claims by the chair of the House of Representatives science committee with the actual numbers in his Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act (FIRST) Act.

In a recent online commentary for Scientific American, Smith claims that FIRST would authorize Congress to increase funding next year for four of NSF’s seven research directorates—engineering, mathematics and physical sciences, computer science, and biology “by between 7 and 8 percent.” Yet, in the bill itself, the 2015 budgets of those four directorates would rise by only 2.2%, 2.4%, 2.2%, and 2.2%, respectively, from 2014 levels.

What accounts for the difference? It turns out that Smith isn’t using the numbers in his own bill in calculating the proposed growth rates. Instead, he is comparing the FIRST Act’s proposed 2015 spending levels to the actual spending that NSF estimates the four directorates will have this year. Those actual 2014 numbers turn out to be lower than the 2014 authorizing levels in the bill. So, by ignoring his own numbers, Smith is able to claim a bigger increase for those disciplines “with the greatest potential to yield transformational new technologies, catalyze new industries and … create millions of new jobs.” That reinforces his argument that he and other Republicans are shifting NSF’s priorities.

To maintain fiscal prudence, Smith offsets those increases with big cuts in two programs. His bill would slash the social and behavioral sciences and economics directorate by 28% this year, to $200 million, and hold its funding at that level in 2015. Likewise, the 2014 and 2015 budgets for international and integrative activities, which include funding for less research-intensive states and for graduate research fellowships, would shrink by 17%, to $400 million.

Those deep cuts allow Smith to set the overall 2015 budget for NSF at $7.277 billion, an increase of only 1.5%. The total is actually $22 million higher than what President Barack Obama requested for NSF (although Obama also submitted a supplemental budget request that would give the agency an additional $550 million). Still, Smith believes that it’s small enough to placate most of his fiscally conservative colleagues.

To be sure, the FIRST Act is largely aspirational when it comes to funding. It is an authorizing bill, meaning it can set only spending targets.

Allocating money to each agency is the job of the appropriations panels in Congress. That difference accounts for one more numerical surprise in the FIRST Act: Its 2015 authorization for NSF is some $127 million less than the $7.408 billion that the House Appropriations Committee has already approved. The lower number turns the usual relationship between authorizers and appropriators on its head: Authorizers are usually the “good cop,” urging more spending, while appropriators play the “bad cop,” imposing restraint.

At a committee markup of the bill last week, some Democrats said they didn’t understand why the panel’s Republicans, in effect, would ask for less than they knew their colleagues were prepared to spend on NSF. One theory is that Smith plans to propose an amendment to NSF’s spending bill, which is expected to be voted on by the full House of Representatives this week, that would reduce the amount approved by appropriators to the level in the FIRST Act.

The amendment would appeal to members looking for ways to cut spending. However, if it were to happen, it would squeeze NSF at a time when the agency is already struggling to maintain its current portfolio.