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Salmon win. A congressional spending panel wants to boost a program aimed at helping salmon, such as these sockeye, by raiding research programs.

Salmon win. A congressional spending panel wants to boost a program aimed at helping salmon, such as these sockeye, by raiding research programs.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Salmon Over Science: House Spending Panel Goes Fishing at the Expense of NSF and Census

Although most U.S. researchers probably think it exists, and both Republican and Democratic administrations play along, there is no federal science budget. Instead, there is one pot of money to be divvied up as legislators see fit. A congressional spending panel made that very clear yesterday by choosing salmon over science.

The case in point is an amendment passed on a voice vote by the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee. It would move $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $10 million from the Census Bureau’s research activities to strengthen a Pacific salmon recovery program run by the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

In his 2015 budget request to Congress, President Barack Obama proposed cutting the salmon recovery program by $15 million, to $50 million. Last week, the House spending panel that controls the budgets of the Commerce Department, NSF, and several other agencies went along with that request. At the same time, it gave NSF $154 million more than the president had asked for. The subcommittee, chaired by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), also embraced the president’s request to give the Census Bureau $176 million more in 2015 as it ramps up for the 2020 decennial census.

Those funding decisions gave Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) the chance to make a classic political gambit: raid the budgets of distant agencies seen as ripe for the picking to beef up a program vital to her constituents.

Herrera Beutler’s press secretary, Amy Pennington, explains it in more positive terms: “Salmon recovery efforts are extremely important to the economic and environmental well-being of Jaime's district, and she strongly opposed the President's 23% cut to the program.” In introducing her amendment, Herrera Beutler said “these funds … mean jobs—family wage jobs."

But the contrast with NSF’s status was also a factor in meeting the congresswoman’s goal of making her amendment “revenue-neutral,” according to Pennington. “As Chairman Wolf stated in the mark-up, this is the highest funding level NSF has ever received,” she notes.

NSF officials aren’t surprised by the small raid on the agency’s research account, which the House panel wants to boost by 3% over 2014, to $5.98 billion. “We were up so much over the [president’s] request,” notes one NSF staffer. A blogger for the Census Project had some strong words for what she called the committee’s attack on the bureau, warning that it may not be the last time legislators use it as a “piggy bank.”

The amendment was one of five adopted yesterday by the Appropriations Committee. The bill now goes to the floor for a vote by the full House. The legislation is one of 12 spending bills House leaders hope to pass by the July recess to fund the government in the 2015 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. The Senate has yet to take up any of its spending bills.

*Update, 9 May, 2:30 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a reaction from a blogger for the Census Project.