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Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

Representative John Culberson (R–TX)

Office of Congressman John Culberson

Bypass White House, come to Congress with spending request, key legislator tells NSF

The new chair of a congressional spending panel that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA thinks those agencies should submit their budgets directly to the committee, without vetting by the White House. It’s the latest twist in the endless battle between Congress and the executive branch over how to set funding priorities, and comes from a legislator who says he’s just trying to give U.S. scientists what they need.  

Representative John Culberson (R–TX) believes that the current budget process, during which agency spending plans get folded into the president’s annual request to Congress after negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), prevents legislators from getting an accurate picture of the nation’s research priorities. “We want to avoid having politics shape those decisions,” Culberson told NSF Director France Córdova yesterday at a hearing on NSF’s 2016 budget request.

Of course, politics also rests at the core of Culberson’s suggestion. Legislators often pressure agency heads to talk about what they originally asked for, rather than what OMB eventually approved, in hopes that such inside information will give Congress an edge in its annual tug of war with the administration over spending.

“One thing that has always aggravated me is that we don’t get a recommendation directly from the scientific community when it comes to NASA or NSF,” Culberson told Córdova, the only witness at a 2-hour session largely devoid of any controversies. “We’re hearing from OMB, and we ought to be hearing from you.”

The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA), leaped to Córdova’s defense before she could answer Culberson’s request for inside information. “It’s difficult for administration witnesses to step outside of their role as a representative of the administration,” Fattah pointed out. And Córdova knew her place. “Thank you,” she said. “Speaking as the head of the National Science Foundation, I would agree. … For the record, I don’t have any comment.”

A legal services model?

Culberson cites another federally funded entity under his committee’s jurisdiction, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), as a model for how NSF and NASA could operate. Each year LSC, which provides lawyers and other services to defendants without adequate income, submits a budget request to Congress. This year it asked for $486 million, for example, $34 million more than what President Barack Obama sought for it in his budget. “The functional budget request comes from us,” an LSC official explained.

LSC is an outlier, however. Congress has given just a few government-funded entities permission to bypass the White House in submitting budget requests. Another is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund PBS and NPR, which lawmakers wanted to partially shield from political pressure. That was also the rationale for LSC, which was created in 1974 as a nonprofit corporation to serve the poor and bills itself as “America’s partner for equal justice.” LSC is not technically a federal agency and, while its budget comes from Congress, the people who work there are not federal employees.

In contrast, NSF is indistinguishable in most ways from other federal agencies. Accordingly, its prospective budget is submitted to OMB each fall and modified to reflect the administration’s priorities, before emerging several months later in the president’s request to Congress.

One parallel between NSF and the LSC is that each is overseen by a presidentially appointed body—in the case of NSF, the 24-member National Science Board. But the science board and NSF officials usually speak with one voice: Although the board approves NSF’s budget submission to OMB, for example, its public statements typically support what the administration ultimately has requested for the agency.

Cancer institute’s bypass operation

There is already one major federal research agency that has permission to send a budgetary wish list to Congress: the National Cancer Institute (NCI). But it is not clear if that ability has made much difference.

Since 1971, NCI has been able to lay out research opportunities that have not necessarily been endorsed by the National Institutes of Health, of which it is a part, or by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. NCI’s so-called bypass budget is generally seen as a “wish list” by Congress, but lawmakers have yet to match its requested amount with actual appropriations—and the pattern is likely to continue this year. In December, for example, NCI Director Harold Varmus outlined $5.75 billion worth of activities for the upcoming 2016 fiscal year in his bypass budget, while the Obama administration has asked for just $5.1 billion.

Biomedical lobbyists admit the 16% boost envisioned in the 2016 bypass budget is unrealistic. “It doesn’t take into account the current fiscal environment, or competing priorities,” notes Jon Retzlaff of the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C. “We try to be more credible and relevant when we go up to the Hill,” he adds, citing the association’s “ask” of a 5% annual increase for the next several years.

Still, he says that NCI’s bypass budget is a useful tool both for educating legislators about opportunities in cancer research and for rallying the community behind a particular initiative. “It’s one of many things we use to make the case for increased funding,” he says.

Doubts abound

With respect to NSF, Culberson’s proposal would require a change to the laws and policies that govern the $7.3 billion agency. It could be done through a spending bill, like the one Culberson and his appropriations subcommittee will be drafting later this year, or in a bill reauthorizing NSF’s programs. Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, crafted such a reauthorization bill last year with controversial provisions about how NSF manages its grantsmaking process and allocates its funding. But the bill, which died in the previous Congress and has yet to be reintroduced, says nothing about how NSF would submit its budget.

Culberson says that he’s discussed the idea with Smith. And yesterday he told ScienceInsider that “any good idea, to be successful, should be passed into law as many times as possible, and in as many vehicles as possible.”

Most science lobbyists scoff at Culberson’s suggested change and assert it has little chance of becoming law. And the reaction crosses party lines.

“I see no merit in Rep. Culberson's proposition,” says former NSF Director Arden Bement, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican, and who completed his 6-year term in 2010, under President Obama. “I don't believe it would be constitutional without major changes in the NSF enabling act which defines a clear chain of command between the Director and the President (not through the NSB).” Bement then delivers the coup de grâce. “I don't see how political interference from the Congress would be better than political interference from the President, where constitutional authority already resides.”