Congressional Committees & Science Policy: From Both Sides of the Aisle

By Yándary Zavala, SACNAS Science Policy Associate

The U.S. Congress influences nearly every aspect of our lives. Science policy, the intersection between scientific research and public policy, is no exception. Funding for, and regulations on, this research are also dictated by Congress. Congressional committees play a pivotal role in the formulation of science policy. To help us better understand the function of these committees, and to trace the channels through which your research, fellowship, or internship monies come, I spoke with staff from the offices of two Members of Congress: Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM).

Committees: A System of Checks & Balances

420 Congressman Ben LujánThe House of Representatives has two types of committees, which provide a “checks and balances” system in Congress. One type of committee authorizes and oversees legislation; the other dictates how much money is allotted for which programs. The number of members on each committee is determined with every new Congress, and Committee Chairs are chosen from within the ranks of the party with the most members in power. Right now, for example, the Committee Chairs in the U.S. House are all from the Republican Party. Congressional committees allow Members to become experts in a particular policy area, since it is impossible for all Members to be experts in every field. Each committee is also comprised of smaller subcommittees, which allow for greater specialization.

Congressman Luján is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees many of the federal non-defense science agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. This is an authorizing committee, which means its role is to authorize programs within the federal agencies, and to set goals and funding targets for each program. The committee also has oversight responsibility for all of these programs. This is achieved through hearings and briefings, where Members examine the implementation of existing programs, investigate the feasibility of new programs, and try to maximize the value to the nation of the federal science portfolio within budget constraints. The Appropriations Committee then sets the actual amount of funding each program receives. (Note: The National Institutes of Health (NIH), as a subsidiary of the Department of Health and Human Services, receives congressional funding allocated through the Appropriations Committee.)

Congressman Wolf is a Member of the Appropriations Committee, where he sits on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice,421 Congressman Frank Wolf Science, and Related Agencies. This committee is the mechanism whereby Congress controls the “power of the purse.” With regard to science policy specifically, the Subcommittee oversees funding for the federal non-defense science agencies, for example NASA, NIST, and NSF, among others. Whereas the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology oversees federal science programs, the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies is tasked with allocating actual funding for each program—an often-daunting endeavor.

First You Have to Come Up with a Budget…

The process for determining the federal budget begins at least two years prior to approval of each budget. Input comes from many sources. Federal agencies send budget recommendations to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which creates a draft budget based on the policy priorities of the President. The President communicates his budget priorities each February by submitting a detailed budget request to Congress. Additionally, federal agencies communicate their needs to specific Members and their staff. Outside groups and stakeholders also come to Congress (usually in the early spring) to provide input and relevant information for budget recommendations. Members and staff rely on these policy experts to provide them with current information on science policy and other issues. After assessing all recommendations, but before voting on a final budget, the Appropriations Committee will also hold hearings with the head of each federal agency.

Then You have to Reconcile It…

It is the job of Congress to reconcile the recommendations of the President, OMB, and the agency heads to determine a final budget. Much of this work takes place at the Committee level. Members of the Appropriations Committee deliberate, and once they reach an agreement—a painfully time-intensive process—they present their recommendations to the full Congress. In April or May, the House of Representatives and the Senate will each draft their own budget bills based on these recommendations. The two versions are reconciled in the coming months (usually by the fall).

Congressman Wolf’s staffer emphasized the delicate nature of trying to balance so many competing interests, “The struggle lies in balancing what you HAVE to do vs. what you WANT to do.”

With polls showing that Americans’ top concern right now is the economy, he also mentioned the importance of balancing funding for technology and jobs now versus funding for research that will impact our economy in the future.

And Then Oversee It!

As stewards of the budget, Congress tries to make sure the funding allotted to each agency is used in the best possible way. Periodically, Congress will request a report or recommendations on specific issues from the federal agencies. For example, in 2005, Congress commissioned a report on the state of science and technology in the United States. This resulted in the compilation of “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a 535-page report drafted by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, National Research Council, and Institute of Medicine in 2005 and revised five years later. The report outlines recommendations and implementation actions that federal policy makers should take to create jobs and use science and technology efforts to meet the nation’s needs and to make sure that the United States remains a world leader in science and innovation.

Staying Informed

Committee Members put forth substantial effort to understand the effects of science policies. Members cannot be well versed in every policy area, but each of them has a capable team of Legislative Assistants (LA) and Legislative Directors (LD) who are knowledgeable about key policy areas. For example, every office has an LA or LD who specializes in science policy, education policy, or healthcare policy. It is the job of these congressional staffers to keep themselves up-to-date on these key issues and to then transmit important information to their respective Members.

In order to do that, staffers rely on their own research AND on interactions with, and information from, relevant non-governmental organizations and individuals. These interactions can range from private meetings to formal public events such as briefings or hearings. Staffers then brief Members on what is most relevant to their constituents and committee assignments. Additionally, various scientific societies (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS) sponsor scientists as Congressional Fellows to serve as congressional staff for a period of time. This presents an important opportunity for scientists to contribute to the political process.

Commitment to Science and STEM

Both Congressman Luján and Congressman Wolf expressed their commitment to science and STEM. Congressman Luján, member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology knows that the STEM fields are key to the nation’s future prosperity. He says, “The more capable we as a nation are in these fields, the better we will be able to address many of the nation’s most important challenges.” With Los Alamos National Laboratory in his district, Luján says he has seen firsthand how scientists and engineers can help the nation. “The innovation coming from our scientists and engineers feeds into our private sector and enhances its economic competitiveness in the world economy.”

Congressman Wolf added, "As chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds most federal science programs, I have increased research funding at NSF and NIST to record levels and prioritized STEM education programs, despite the challenging budget environment. Unless young people are exposed to STEM programs, they will never develop an interest in these subjects, won't major in these areas in college, and will never have the opportunity to have lucrative careers in math, science, technology, and engineering that would boost American competitiveness internationally. Without a solid STEM workforce, no amount of federal or private R&D funding would enable the United States to lead the world in cutting-edge fields like space, biotech or advanced manufacturing.”

About the Author

Yándary Zavala served as the SACNAS Science Policy Associate in 2012 - 2013. She holds a B.S. in Political Science from the University of Utah and a Master’s degree in Political Management from George Washington University.

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