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U.S. House approves 2018 spending bills, but process far from finished

The U.S. House of Representatives today took a major step toward setting federal science budgets for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October. But Congress is still far from the finish line, and final spending levels aren’t likely to be finalized until late this year at the earliest.

Legislators voted largely along party lines in approving a package of 12 appropriations bills that would provide about $1.23 trillion in 2018 for so-called discretionary programs. That category covers about one-third of the federal budget and includes most research budgets. (The rest pays for mandatory entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security and interest on the $20 trillion national debt.)

The good news for the research community is that the 211-to-198 vote by the House largely rejects deep cuts to science programs proposed by President Donald Trump earlier this year—and even calls for spending increases at a few agencies, including $1.1 billion more for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But the budgets of several research agencies would shrink by a few percentage points, or remain at existing levels.

Overall, the House bills call for increasing federal spending on basic research by about 2.6%, to $35.6 billion, in 2018, according to an analysis by the R&D Budget and Policy Program of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider). Much of that increase would be dedicated to defense and health research. Trump’s budget request had called for a 16.7% cut in basic research, to $28.9 billion. More detailed numbers on specific agency budgets are available on the AAAS program’s 2018 appropriations dashboard.

The House bills will ultimately have to be reconciled with versions passed by the Senate, which has yet to finish work on any of its 12 spending bills. To give themselves more time, lawmakers have already voted to extend 2017 spending levels for 10 weeks into the new fiscal year. That extension, known as a continuing resolution, expires on 8 December, and it is not clear whether lawmakers and the White House will be able to reach a 2018 spending agreement by then. If they can’t, Congress will have to pass another continuing resolution to avert a government-wide shut down.

In addition to the budget numbers, science and university groups have been tracking a number of policy provisions that have been attached to the House bills. Legislators adopted language that would block funding for efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, ease the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle a regulation aimed at protecting small streams and wetlands, and bar the administration from fully considering the costs of greenhouse gas pollution in setting regulations.

Here’s a sampling of other research-related issues raised by the House bills:

  • Abortion and public health: The House foreign aid bill would end funding for the U.N. Population Fund, and codify the Trump administration’s decision to bar federal funding to global health programs that aid overseas groups that provide information about abortion. (That ban previously applied only to family planning groups.) A Senate spending panel has taken the opposite stance on both issues.
  • Climate change: The House prohibits U.S. contributions to the multinational Green Climate Fund to help developing nations combat climate change, and eliminates other climate-related programs. The Senate would continue some U.S. contributions to international climate programs and other climate-related programs targeted by the House.
  • Fetal tissue research: The House bill that funds NIH would prohibit funding for research involving fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. A Senate panel wouldn’t go that far, but it has called for NIH to study whether researchers could get by on fetal tissue obtained only from stillbirths and spontaneous abortions.
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E): The House wants to defund ARPA-E, a Department of Energy agency tasked with helping risky energy technologies move from the laboratory to the marketplace. But a Senate panel has voted to give it an 8% increase, to $330 million.
  • Genetically engineered salmon: The House’s agriculture spending bill is silent on whether the United States should allow the import and sale of genetically engineered salmon, but the Senate bill would ban such fish.

Here are some other recent ScienceInsider stories on the 2018 appropriations process.

Why a flat 2018 budget could tie NSF's hands

Challenges mount for a successful 2020 U.S. census

Trump wants 2018 NIH cut to come from overhead payments

With unusual candor, Senate appropriators 'reject' cuts to energy

Senate spending panel would squeeze science agencies but exceed Trump request

House lawmakers balk at most Trump science cuts in early bills