House and Senate appropriation bills mixed for research, student aid priorities

With two months to go before the start of the new federal fiscal year on October 1, Congress has taken some level of action on all twelve of the appropriations bills that make up the federal budget. But no budget resolution setting overall spending authority for each appropriations bill has been set nor has Congress addressed issues related to budget caps and the debt ceiling. As Congress heads toward its August recess, it remains unclear whether a government shutdown can be avoided when the fiscal year begins October 1. Congress has so far rejected many of the Trump Administration’s requests to make big cuts to key research agency budgets.

Congress continues to work on FY18 appropriations in the absence of a budget resolution and the current Budget Control Act setting caps on discretionary spending. Though the House recently passed a "minibus" spending package that would fund the departments of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs, the legislative branch, and Army Corps of Engineers in FY18, the bill appears unlikely to be considered by the Senate in its current form. Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved its FY18 commerce-justice-science (CJS) spending measure, rejecting the large cuts to NSF that the Administration had requested.

Agency Funding

Appropriations activity to date indicates support for some key University of Oregon priorities including education research and ShakeAlert. Both activities were level-funded in the bills that have been acted upon to date.

Earlier in July, the House Appropriations Committee approved the FY2018 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS-ED) funding bill. The bill would fund the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at $35.171 billion, an overall $1.087 billion increase from FY2017 enacted levels and $8.251 billion above the President’s Budget Request.  The bill level-funds the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Special Education Research, programs important to UO’s education research faculty.

The bill and accompanying report include language that would require the NIH to continue to pay facilities and administrative (F&A) costs at the negotiated rates and would prohibit NIH from making changes to F&A rates. This is an important indication that key members of Congress are unwilling to consider the President’s Budget Request that called for disruptive changes to reimbursing universities for costs related to research. Similar language is expected to be included in the Senate appropriations bill.

The report also includes language asking NIH to report on its actions to lower the average age investigators receive their first R01 award in the agency’s FY2019 Congressional Justification. The report also directs NIH to “provide an update on the concrete steps it is taking to lower the median age at which individuals receive their first R01 award within 60 days of enactment of this Act.”

The FY 2018 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee includes $10.2 million for ShakeAlert, the earthquake early warning system that relies on three seismic networks operated by four universities (UO, the University of Washington, Caltech, and UC-Berkeley). The bill would also fund the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) at $145 million, $4.8 million less than FY2017. The President’s Budget Request proposed eliminating the NEH and providing $42 million in FY2018 to close the agency.

Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman said, “We commend … (the) members of the Appropriations Committee for avoiding the steep cuts proposed in the Administration’s FY18 budget request. We also appreciate their calls to increase the spending caps for defense and non-defense discretionary programs. Before the end of the fiscal year, we encourage Congress pass a bipartisan budget agreement that will increase these caps and allow for increased investment in NSF, NASA, and other research agencies.”

Financial Aid

On the student aid front, the House appropriations mark-up for student aid is mixed. The bill maintains the Pell grant at its current level but rescinds $3.3 billion from the Pell surplus, which could destabilize funding for the program in future years. The bill turns back some of the cuts proposed by the Administration to campus-based aid and support programs.  The bill would level-fund the Federal Work Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs, a far better outcome than the administration’s proposal to slash funding for both.

The bill would level fund the domestic component of Title VI international education programs at $65 million while eliminating the overseas component, the Fulbright-Hays program for a savings of less than $10 million. This is a disappointment. The committee report says “The U.S. Department of State funds similar programs that can continue to support these activities.” UO is working in a coalition with higher education associations to advocate for continued funding for both components of the Fulbright-Hays program.

Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) President Peter McPherson said, “Overall, this is a strong rebuttal from Congress to the administration’s budget request, which made steep cuts to many of these programs and proposed eliminating some others.”