In Perspective: S. 124, The National Research Investment Act
Senator Phil Gramm's introduction of S. 124, The National Research Investment Act of 1997, contributes to the ongoing debate about the level and nature of federal support of basic science and medical research (see FYIs #11 and 12.) While it may help to increase federal R&D funding, it is not money in the bank.
There are two main types of legislation affecting federal funding for science. The first, authorization legislation, establishes a department or agency, or its programs. An authorization bill can also set new spending limits for an existing program. The Gramm bill falls into this category.
Of much greater importance are appropriations bills. There are 13 such bills passed every year. These bills actually provide the money.
Members of Congress often introduce authorization legislation as a rallying point. Senators and representatives can demonstrate their support for a bill's objectives by cosponsoring it. The introduction of a companion bill in the other house sends a strong signal of support. A bill with many cosponsors, especially if they are powerful or well-known, is a very effective vehicle to prod the congressional leadership to act. Gramm's message to his colleagues and the Clinton Administration is straightforward: "The United States simply does not spend enough on basic research."
Constituents can show their support for a bill's objectives, and determine their own representative's leanings, by writing to them and requesting that they cosponsor a bill. This is very common. At present, Senators Connie Mack (R-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) are cosponsors of S. 124. There is no companion House bill.
The much larger, and more important legislative goal for the coming months revolves around the yet-to-be drafted appropriations bills. These bills have to "balance" when compared with the overall discretionary spending limit. This is going to be a difficult year. S. 124's call is one of many attempts to increase federal spending, ranging from transportation to housing to job training. The Gramm bill does not affect the overall spending limit -- in fact, it states that any increase must be in compliance with domestic discretionary spending caps. On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. George Brown (D-CA) has announced his intention to introduce an authorization bill promoting federal investment in R&D, capital infrastructure, and education and training. Brown's bill will outline offsetting spending cuts, which S. 124 does not.
So what does this all mean? It is noteworthy that a powerful Senate Republican, usually associated with spending cuts, is calling for the doubling of federal science spending. His message will become stronger as other senators cosponsor S. 124. Of far more importance are the appropriations bills that will actually put money in the bank. This process begins next Thursday, February 6, when President Clinton sends his FY 1998 budget request to Congress.