Census, NSF See Proposed Funding Increases in 2019

John Culberson
John Culberson, a Republican from Houston, Texas, chairs of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science.

Legislation to fund the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of the Census, among many other U.S. government agencies, in the next fiscal year sailed through its first public hearing today in the House of Representatives. The 2019 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, or CJS, dramatically increases funding for NSF and Census, as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but kneecaps some climate-change-related endeavors by the federal government.

The NSF is by far the largest funder of basic social and behavioral science research at U.S. universities, while the Census – now preparing for its 2020 decennial count — is the pre-eminent database for much social science inquiry.

According to the U.S. Constitution, spending bills must originate in the House, and according to tradition, 12 separate spending bills – CJS being one of them – come together to pay for operations each fiscal year. Wednesday’s public hearing was before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and its members unanimously passed the $62.5 billion CJS spending bill, without making any amendments, to the full committee for further mark-up. The bill is $2.9 billion larger than what the current fiscal year saw appropriated.

While CJS funds a hodge-podge of federal agencies, ranging from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, “We are focused first and foremost, Mr. Chairman, on funding law enforcement to protect this great nation,” explained the subcommittee’s chair, Texas Republican John Culberson. That said, many science agencies received healthy proposed increases in their budgets, often higher than what the administration of Donald Trump had requested.

The Bureau of the Census, for example, received $4.8 billion in the bill, which is $1.9 billion more money than it did last year – and a billion dollars more than the White House had asked for. Culberson noted that the 2020 decennial census is quickly approaching, but he did not mention the growing concerns that the Census can’t do its constitutionally mandated job on low-ball figures proposed by the White House. The Census Project, which is an advocacy group and not part of the administration, sent the subcommittee a letter on May 1 that read, in part, “[F]unding for the Census Bureau, and especially 2020 Census preparations, remains below necessary levels, including the Commerce Department’s own revised decennial census cost projection for FY2019.” Culberson did say, however, that the committee wanted to make sure that CJS provided the bureau with “a responsible budget.”

As a release announcing the bill detailed, “The funding provided in the bill is a down payment on the total cost of the next census, which the Administration estimates will total more than $15 billion. These funds will cover activities such as technology improvements, address listing, and opening of Census field offices.” The increase proved a rare bipartisan accord in the U.S. Congress, even if it does run counter to White House guidance. The ranking Democrat in the subcommittee, New York’s Jose Serrano, said, for example, “At this critical time for the 2020 Census, this investment will help ensure that the bureau has the resources to move forward with its critical missions to ensure an accurate count.”

The bill also increases the budget for the National Science Foundation, appropriating $408 million more than the enacted level for the current year for a total of $8.2 billion. That figure includes $6.7 billion to pay for research, which is $317 million above the current level. The bill does not subdivide the research allocation among the NSF’s various discipline-based directorates, which has been a routine way that some House Republicans have attempted to reduce funding for social and behavioral research without cutting NSF’s overall budget.

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