Which Members of Congress have a say over the NSF?

Another shutdown has been avoided. Science did well in the final deal, and this includes \$8.1 billion for the NSF for the fiscal year 2019 (FY2019); this is the first time the NSF has received appropriations over \$8 billion and marks a 4% increase over last year. Negotiations for fiscal year 2020 have begun, and we expect the president’s proposal in mid-March (the first step in the process). You can read about how the annual “appropriations” works at the AMS Government Relations website.

The recent partial government shutdown rudely reminds us that the NSF is part of the government and, therefore, subject to its whims. “Huge” whims these days.

You might wonder:

  • Which Senators and Representatives have the most say over how much money the NSF has to give out in grants?
  • Can members of Congress tell NSF how to spend their funds and thus determine the direction of NSF-funded research?
  • Can we trust them to make decisions about the research trajectory for the country?

There are scientifically trained people in Congress, and on November 18, 2018 I wrote about the newly elected members who have some background in STEM fields. [Note that in that piece I overlooked at least one new member with a science background—Jim Baird (IN 4) has a PhD in Animal Science Monogastric Nutrition.] Roughly 5% of the current congressional members have STEM backgrounds, and about 10% of the new members. 

It is not necessarily those individuals who make decisions about the NSF or about the US science enterprise more broadly.

Congressional members can introduce legislation on any topic they want; they are most easily able to introduce legislation and promote policies through the committees on which they serve. Scientifically trained congressional members might well want to serve on the committees overseeing the NSF and other science agencies, but committee membership is subject to rules, is by rank and status, and members—especially newly elected members—might not get their desired committee assignments.

Digression: In November, we elected nine new Senators and 92 new members to the House (this is the “freshman class”). All 435 seats in the House were up for grabs, as were 35 Senate seats (all House seats and one-third of the Senate seats are up for election every two years). In the Senate, 32 incumbents ran, and five of them lost. Republicans gained seats and now have a majority of 53 (up from 51). Different story in the House, where Democrats took control and now hold 235 seats (with one seat, NC 9, still undecided as of this writing). You may know this already and can read about the election results for Senate and House all over the web. You can read interesting factets about the demographics of the freshman class, too. For example, for the first time ever we have Congressional members (in fact, we now have 2) who are female and Muslim; one—Ilhan Omar—is from my home state of Minnesota. And, while we are on the topic of the great state of Minnesota, it is the only state left with a divided state legislature (Democrats control the state House and Republicans the state Senate). Oh, and while we are on state legislatures, for the first time in US history a state has a legislature that is majority female (Nevada)!

Back to Congress and the NSF………

The NSF was signed into law in 1950 and its funding is renewed each year by Congress, through the annual appropriations process. There are four congressional committees with power over the NSF—the “appropriating” and “authorizing” committees for each of the House and Senate. The Appropriations Committees—specifically, the Subcommittees on Commerce, Science and Justice in each chamber—decide how much money the NSF receives each year. This money is in turn awarded to scientists to support their research through grants. The NSF is the only federal agency that funds research broadly, without an “mission driven” agenda. The majority of funding for mathematicians working in academia that comes from the federal government comes from the NSF. For FY2018, the NSF received $7.8 billion. This is up over 2017, but (still) less than the amount appropriated in 2010 and arguably not what the US needs to remain global leaders in scientific discovery and education. I work with decision-makers to provide increased and sustained funding for the NSF.

While the Appropriations Committees in each of the House and Senate are the same in their names and subcommittee structure, this is not the case for the authorizing committees. The NSF authorizing committees are the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (SST) and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (CST). In the House, the SST’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology holds jurisdiction over the NSF, as well as university research policy and all matters relating to STEM education. In the Senate it is the CST’s Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather. [Note: if you are wonky about this sort of thing, yes, some of these are new. In particular, the Senate CST reconfigured its subcommittees in January.]

To review, or put in a more visually-easing format, the four committees I am talking (uh, writing) about right now are:

SubcommitteeOf what committee?ChamberPower
Commerce, Science and JusticeAppropriations CommitteeSenateAppropriating
Commerce, Science and JusticeAppropriations CommitteeHouseAppropriating
Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and WeatherCommittee on Commerce, Science and TransportationSenateAuthorizing
Research and Technology Committee on Science, Space, and TechnologyHouseAuthorizing

The authorization committees provide guidance about how the NSF spends and manages their appropriated amount. In January 2017, just as he was leaving office, President Obama signed into law the most recent NSF authorizing law—the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.  To give you an idea of what sort of things are in such an authorization law, the Republicans had been pushing for Congress to have the power to determine how much money goes to each research area supported by the NSF. That is, they were pushing to fund the NSF “by directorate.” Due, in part, to efforts by scientists reaching out to their members of Congress and the concerted efforts of scientific society government relations staff, this particular provision did not succeed in making it to the final law, and leaves (at least for the time being, especially with the Democrats in charge in the House again) the NSF to determine for itself how to distribute funds among research areas.[1]

It is arguably important that members of the mathematics community know who sits on these committees. (Why? members of congress pay particular attention to their own constituents and if yours are listed below in any of the tables, you can play a bigger role informing them about the importance of basic research as funded by the NSF). Appropriations committees are powerful and membership on these committees is sought by many members of Congress.[2] Here are the current members of each of these four committees:

Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Justice (of the Senate Appropriations Committee)
Chair Jerry Moran (KS)
Ranking member Jeanne Shaheen (NH)
Republican membersDemocratic members
Lamar Alexander (TN)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
Susan Collins (ME)
Lindsey Graham (SC)
John Boozman (AR)
Shelley Moore Capito (WV)
John Kennedy (LA)
Marco Rubio (FL)
Patrick Leahy (VT)
Dianne Feinstein (CA)
Jack Reed (RI)
Christopher Coons (DE)
Brian Schatz (HI)
Joe Manchin (WV)
Chris Van Hollen (MD)
Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Justice (of the House Appropriations Committee)
Chair José Serrano (NY 15)
Ranking member Robert Alderholt (AL 4)
Republican membersDemocratic members
Martha Roby (AL 2)
Steve Palazzo (MS 4)
Tom Graves (GA 9)
Matt Cartwright (PA 8)
Grace Meng (NY 6)
Brenda Lawrence (MI 14)
Charlie Crist (FL 13)
Ed Case (HI 1)
Marcy Kaptur (OH 9)
Nita Lowey (NY 17)
Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather (of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation)
Chair Cory Gardner (CO)
Ranking Member Tammy Baldwin (WI)
Republican membersDemocratic members
Ted Cruz (TX)
Ron Johnson (WI)
Rick Scott (FL)
Dan Sullivan (AK)
Roger Wicker (MS)
Richard Blumenthal (CT)
Gary Peters (MI)
Brian Schatz (HI)
Maria Cantwell (WA)
Subcommittee on Research and Technology (of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology)
Chair Haley Stevens (MI 11)
Ranking member Jim Baird (IN 4)
Republican membersDemocratic members
Roger Marshall (KS 1)
Neal Dunn (FL 2)
Troy Balderson (OH 12)
Anthony Gonzalez (OH 16)
Dan Lipinski (IL 3)
Mikie Sherrill (NJ 11)
Brad Sherman (CA 30)
Paul Tonko (NY 20)
Ben McAdams (UT 4)
Steve Cohen (TN 9)
Bill Foster (IL 11)

One interesting note here is that Congresswoman Stevens is a freshman. In fact, four out of the five subcommittees of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology are being chaired by freshman. This could be a strategic move to let these newly elected members of Congress show their constituents at home that they are active in areas that they campaigned on, as opposed to only following the lead of party leadership.

The whole committees, of which these are subcommittees, are also important for us, and committee membership is easy to find at the websites of the full committees.

There are, of course, other congressional committees with jurisdiction over matters of concern to many mathematicians. For example, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee considers matters related to open access, and the House Education and Labor Committee covers topics ranging from workforce training to student financial aid in higher education to improving employment conditions for contingent faculty.

If you would like to reach out to your Congressional delegation, please refer to the resources on the AMS Office of Government Relations webpage. Topics you might want to discuss with your members of Congress include: the importance of fundamental research in mathematics; your own grants and how important federal funding is for you and your students; policies that support the global mathematics enterprise; the important role of mathematics in all STEM education; and broadening participation by women and under-represented minorities in our field.

[1] For much more on the Democrats’ priorities for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, see: https://eos.org/articles/johnson-plans-to-restore-credibility-to-house-science-committee

[2] Each of the House and Senate have rules for how committee assignments are made, the structure of each committee, how many committees each member can sit on, etc. These rules are updated and evolve with each new Congress; each chamber has a website with explanation:
Senate: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Committees.htm
House: http://clerk.house.gov/committee_info/index.aspx
This site is also informative: https://www.congress.gov/committees

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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