Funding Social Science: A Primer on US Budgeting Process


Appropriations billThe federal funding of social science research is a complex and complicated activity. It involves many actors with different priorities and expectations. The key players are the president and his Office of Management and Budget, the many agencies from which social scientists receive grants and contracts, and the Congress, including its budget committees and, most importantly, the appropriations panels.

In early February, law requires the president to submit to Congress a budget detailing the administration’s spending priorities for the following fiscal year. This requirement has been breached and budgets have been submitted later, mostly in the first year of a new administration. Although the press can usually find a key member of Congress from the party opposite the president to denounce the budget as “dead on arrival,” the administration’s proposed budget acts as a starting point for most of the congressional action that follows.

Howard J. Silver
Howard J. Silver served for a quarter century as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Sciences Agencies. His blog appears monthly at Social Science Space.
The budget Committees in the House and Senate get first crack at the spending plan. They produce resolutions that establish overall spending figures. The president has no role here; he cannot veto the resolutions. They also provide guidelines sorted into 20 function categories; e.g., function number 250 covers science and include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, but not the National Institutes of Health (which is No. 550). These are mainly recommendations that are not binding on the appropriations panels.

The overall numbers are sometimes impacted, as they have been in recent years, by agreements between the administration and Congress regarding overall spending caps. In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, there was a deal that afforded a two-year respite from the previous agreement that implemented “sequestration.” This dreaded term provided for automatic reductions in spending that left many agencies with significant reductions in their budgets. For fiscal year 2016, which begins on October 1, 2015, sequestration has returned and the political jockeying to eliminate it has begun.

The authorizing panels, like the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, set spending figures for programs under their jurisdiction. In the past, the authorizers were generous to those programs and appropriating below the authorizations was easy. In recent years, especially with the Republicans in charge, the authorizers have tried to become more realistic. Appropriators often ignore authorizing numbers and the lack of an authorization does not preclude agencies from receiving spending allocations; the NSF in the 1990s, for example, did not have an authorization. Sometimes, as with Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and his attacks on social science, authorizers can convince key appropriators to follow their preferences.

The appropriations panels in the House and Senate are divided into 12 subcommittees. The budget committee’s overall spending number is divided into what are called 302(b) allocations, stipulating spending target numbers for the subcommittees. These panels are the workhorses; holding hearings with the agencies and producing draft bills that allocate the actual funding for programs. The full appropriations committees then consider these bills, and after they approve the bills that legislation goes to the floor –- i.e. the full House or Senate — for passage. At both the full committee and the floor the bills can be amended. Subsequent to enactment in each chamber, a conference committee, comprised of House and Senate members who have worked on the legislation, convenes to reconcile the differences in the bills and produce the final figures. The bill emerging from the conference committees must then receive final passage by both Houses.

The reports that are filed to accompany the bills are another important aspect of the work of the appropriators.  In some cases, such as for the National Institute of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the funding allocations are in the report as opposed to the legislation, which only allocates an overall number for the Office of Justice Programs. Reports also include language directing the agencies to fulfill certain actions deemed important by Congress. These are often couched as “suggestions,” but are ignored by the agencies at their own peril, risking punishment in next year’s process. With the demise of “earmarking,” the allocation of specific funds to specific groups for specific purposes, these “suggestions” become more important.

The bitter partisan politics of the past decade has made this “textbook” description of the process somewhat unreal. The struggles over funding, complicated by the inclusion of policy “riders,” have made enactment of the 12 spending bills by the October 1 start of the fiscal year almost impossible. Some years the appropriations process has not finished until six months into the fiscal year, causing significant disruption to agencies’ plans.

For social science, the key appropriations panels are the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (LHHSED) subcommittees. Almost all the other subcommittees have some funding for social science, but these two encompass many agencies with significant amounts of money for research. Among the agencies under its jurisdiction, CJS has the National Science Foundation, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the National Institute of Justice, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The LHSSED panel’s purview includes the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Institute for Education Sciences, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The problem, of course, is that these research and statistics programs are not funded in a vacuum from the other agencies and programs within the jurisdiction of these panels. Funds for research and data are always at the mercy of spending on programmatic concerns. In the CJS bill, NASA’s space programs, the National Weather Service, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, State and Local Justice Assistance Grants, and Economic Development Grants are some of the competition. Competing programs in the LHHSED include Title I education grants for poor children, higher education student aid, the Job Corps, the Employment and Training Administration, the Administration of Children and Families, and Head Start.

As I said at the beginning, the president’s budget proposal becomes the starting point for consideration of an agency’s spending. In most cases, incremental increases or decreases are the norm. Sometimes events, a shift in leadership, a particular interest of a member of the panel, or an initiative from the administration, will lead to significant spending changes. The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut galvanized former House CJS Chair Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, into providing $75 million for a School Safety Initiative that NIJ administers and which includes a requirement for evidence-based recommendations based on research.  Wolf also was quite interested in research on domestic violence and provided funding for research on this topic. The ranking member (i.e. the most senior member of the opposition party) of the House CJS panel, Representative Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, became very interested in neuroscience research, and in cooperation with the White House the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, Initiative received funding, with Fattah insuring that NSF would be a major player. Stymied by the continued difficulty in obtaining increases for justice research and statistics, Laurie Robinson, the then-assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, proposed a small set-aside of OJP programmatic funds, for training, research and statistics, and Congress agreed.

This year the CJS panel has new leadership in both the House and Senate. Representative John Culberson, R-Texas, has introduced the notion of “pure” science into discussions of the NSF budget. The FY 2016 bill produced by the subcommittee and now through the House, has a provision that would lead to significant decreases for NSF spending on the social sciences and, because of Culberson’s opposition to climate change research, the geosciences. This legislation also eliminates all regular appropriations for NIJ and BJS, but “permits” them to receive transfers from programmatic funds for their activities. The School Safety Initiative survives as does the domestic violence funding.

With the change in the majority in the Senate, Senator Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, has taken the helm of the CJS Subcommittee from Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Since Shelby and Mikulski have worked quite cooperatively when their roles were reversed, the bill that emerged from the Appropriations Committee does not have the House’s heinous social and geoscience provision regarding NSF and preserves the regular appropriations for NIJ and BJS.

The LHHSED bill has always been one of the most contentious of all the spending legislation. It has been a long time since a free standing bill for these agencies has been enacted. In recent years, the House Republicans continued attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act (and the provision is in the FY 2016 House Subcommittee bill) has made this a non-starter. Again, with a change in majority, new leadership, Senator Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, has come to the Senate subcommittee. On June 25, the FY 2016 LHHSED bill emerged from the Senate Appropriations Committee. It too attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act. In both the House and Senate bills there are significant increases for NIH, with a special emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease research. Both houses cut funding for the Institute of Education Sciences; the House significantly; the Senate slightly.

With the president and the Republican-controlled Congress at odds over a number of the spending recommendations promulgated for FY 2016 so far, it remains doubtful that the “regular order” of enacting all the appropriations bills on time will occur. Although it appears that some bills, including CJS, are moving ahead smoothly, Senate Democrats want to preclude consideration of any FY 2016 spending bill until a new budget agreement will derail sequestration. Once more, it appears that a budget showdown, with threats of a government shutdown, may be the scenario the U.S. faces as we approach the October 1 start of FY 2016.


Howard J. Silver

Howard J. Silver served as the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) in Washington, DC, from 1988 to 2013. He has testified before Congress, spoken on federal funding of science at many professional meetings, and written extensively on executive-legislative relations, the federal budget process, and science policy as it affects the social and behavioral sciences.