Friday, 11 September 1987 Washington, DC

The Administration's plan to double the NSF budget in five years was derailed in the Senate Appropriations Committee just before Congress left for its August break (WN 7 Aug 87). When they returned Wednesday, no one seemed to know how to get it back on the tracks. The first installment on the 5-year plan was to have been a 17% increase in FY 88. But, although there is little opposition to the NSF request, it now appears that we will be lucky to get off in the Senate with a freeze at this year's level. How could this happen?

The answer lies in the complex interworkings of the budget process. If I have it right, it went something like this. In the Spring, the Senate Budget Resolution actually increased the President's request for NSF by $300M (WN 3 Apr 87). Sound good? In fact, it hardly mattered. The Appropriations Committee is bound only by the total figure in the Budget Resolution -- the breakdown by function is only a guideline. The venerable and somewhat infirm Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, John Stennis (D-MS), who also chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, didn't much like the apportionment anyway. He felt Defense should have gotten a larger share. So, when it came to dividing the total budget figure among the 13 appropriations subcommittees, he asked each subcommittee how much it really needed. Naturally, the subcommittee chairmen asked for more than they were allocated in the Budget Resolution -- except for William Proxmire (D-WI), Chairman of the HUD-Independent Agencies Subcommittee. Proxmire, who is retiring at the end of this term, felt that to ask for more would be inconsistent with his career-long battle against government spending. In effect, he offered up his share to help out the other subcommittees. NSF lies in his subcommittee.

Since the subcommittee requests now added up to more than the Budget Resolution, Chairman Stennis settled on the simple procedure of reducing each subcommittee by 1.2%, putting HUD-Independent Agencies at a further disadvantage. What's worse, 70% of the budget is in entitlements. Discretionary funds, which must absorb the cuts, are scarce in HUD-Independent Agencies -- except NSF. Thus, NSF, the agency with no enemies, seems destined to recieve this year's biggest appropriations cut.

Of course, it's not over 'til it's over -- and it won't be over for a long time. The Senate won't meet the 30 September deadline, which means a continuing resolution. The final figure, when it comes, must still be compromised with the House. In the meantime a miracle may happen: a tax increase perhaps, or the space station might be dropped, or a pool of unspent funds discovered. In any case, constituents (that's you) should let their Senators know that the appropriations process is seriously defective, or we are going to face the same thing next year.

Bob Park can be reached via email at
Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be.