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Congress still debating 1997 funding bills

Research agencies and programs important to universities are faring relatively well in the fiscal-year 1997 appropriations, but Congress' desire to adjourn by early October may force an unorthodox appropriations process.

As Congress returns from its traditional August recess, only the Agriculture bill has been passed by both houses and signed into law by the President, increasing speculation that many of the agencies may end up receiving their funding through some sort of omnibus funding mechanism or through a Continuing Resolution-legislation allowing a department, agency or program to continue functioning without passage of an appropriations bill. The House has passed all 13 of the spending bills which fund the federal government, and the Senate has completed nine.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the House bills would provide an overall 3.7 percent increase in federal research and development spending for fiscal 1997. However, the AAAS says this figure is due to large increases for just two agencies: the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The AAAS says the R&D budgets of most other agencies would only increase slightly or fall sharply.


Basic research would "fare well" under the House's bills, getting a total of $14.9 billion in fiscal 1997, or an overall 3.2 percent increase, the AAAS said.

House and Senate members hope to complete as many of these bills as possible before resorting to an alternative funding solution, but much remains to be done in September before they can return to their districts to campaign for the November elections. The target adjournment date is October 4, but the House leadership is reportedly pushing for a September 27 deadline.

By agency, the fiscal 1997 appropriations highlights are:

NIH-The NIH again is a big winner, receiving an increase of 6.9 percent ($808 million) in total funding over 1996 levels from the House. This is a $341 million increase over the President's request. Committee action is pending in the Senate.

Defense-The (6.1) Basic Research and (6.2) Exploratory Development budgets within the defense appropriations bills are slated to receive small increases. Both the House and Senate have passed their bills, allowing these accounts even greater appropriations than what was requested by the President for fiscal 1997. Of particular concern to MIT within the (6.2) account is the segment responsible for the Lincoln Laboratory research programs. The requested funding for this line was $20.07 million. While the Senate bill fully funds the Lincoln line, the House bill only recommends $10.57 million, or $9.5 million less than the request. A conference committee is expected to convene this week.

Energy-The Department of Energy continues to suffer funding reductions. Basic science within the Energy and Water appropriations bill seemed to have fared better than the applied science programs. The General Sciences account, made up of high-energy and nuclear physics, has fully funded the Bates Linear Accelerator in this year's legislation. Meanwhile, the future of the funding for the National Fusion Program continues to be an issue of great concern to MIT.

Further cuts have been proposed for the fusion program this year in the House and Senate Energy and Water Bills. The budget request for the fusion program was $255.6 million; the House recommends $225 million for the fusion program while the Senate provides $240 million. Also, the forecasts for the Department of Energy show a possible 20 percent reduction spread out over the next six years. Both the House and Senate have passed their bills and will begin conference action shortly.

NSF-The House bill funds the NSF at $3.25 billion, a $33 million increase over the fiscal 1996 final appropriation, and the Senate bill adds another $22 million to the House allowance. The House and Senate are scheduled to confer the week of September 16.

For Research and Related Activities, both House and Senate bills provide about $2.43 billion for NSF research grants, which is about $116 million, or 5 percent, over last year's appropriation.

Education-Student financial aid programs, which are included in the Labor/Health and Human Services/Education Appropriations bill, passed the House in July. The House bill increases student financial aid by approximately $370 million over the 1996 level, but in the process, eliminates the Harris and Javits graduate fellowship programs, the State Student Incentive Grants (SSIG), and the federal Perkins Loans Capital Contribution.

Even though the House bill terminates the Harris and Javits programs, it does allow for the continuation of all existing fellowships by increasing the funding for the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) to $30 million, up from $27.3 million. Also, the House bill recommended the Pell Grant Program receive an increase in funding, raising the maximum grant to $2,500, an increase of $30 from 1996.

The House bill on the federal Direct Student Loan Program decreases by $175 million the amount permitted under the authorizing law. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee has not yet acted.

NASA-The total House funding for NASA decreased from its 1996 levels by $299.5 million, to $13.6 billion. The Senate, which still must complete floor action, increases that amount slightly to $13.7 billion. Both the House and Senate bills provide funding for virtually all of NASA's science programs at the same levels, but NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program is slated to receive $220 million more under the Senate bill.

EPA-In total, the Environmental Protection Agency received increases in its funding levels, up $19.4 million in the House bill and $70.2 million in the Senate. Both the House and Senate recommended increases for the newly created EPA Science and Technology account. The Senate is scheduled to complete floor action on this bill some time this month.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 1996.

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