When Congress passed the omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 3547) in mid-January, which provided $1.1 trillion of federal government spending for the remainder of fiscal year 2104, the bill did not include the restrictions on National Science Foundation funding for political science that had been in the 2013 government funding bill. But why weren’t the funding restrictions sustained? The restrictive language on NSF funding for political science, put forth by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), represented the status quo, and every political science student knows the incredible advantage the status quo has in the law making process. So, how did it change?
The American Political Science Association took a multi-faceted approach to lobbying for restoring government funding of political science research. First, APSA relied upon its social science partners by looking to the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) to maintain pressure and communication with House and Senate appropriations leaders. COSSA also has led the effort to keep an eye on the reauthorization of NSF. Second, APSA hired former Representative Barbara Kennelly and her associate Maria Freese to lead the lobbying effort on Appropriations, with special attention on the limiting Coburn language. Kennelly and Freese were hired, in part, because of their deep connections to players in the appropriations process. Not only is Kennelly a former member of Congress (a huge asset in the lobbying world because former members can open doors that no one else can), but she is also a political scientist.
The Senate Side
Typically, appropriations bills start in the House—and if it’s a bill that includes any revenue raising measures it’s constitutionally required to start in the House. But this year, the Senate moved first on appropriations. In order to comply with the House-moves-first requirement, the Senate took up a transportation bill that the House had previously passed, and stripped it of all its content, including its title, and amended the content of the omnibus appropriations bill into the bill. (This is how the sausage is made, folks.) Senators were only able to use this procedure after they had agreed to move the appropriations in an omnibus bill rather than as individual vehicles.
By all accounts, Senator Coburn had his amendments ready to go. Despite recent revelations about Senator Coburn’s serious illness and his impending retirement, my discussions with those close to the process reveal that Senator Coburn was ready to once again amend the spending bill.
So how did the limiting Coburn language get left out of the Senate version of the bill? There were two series of events that contributed to this outcome—one is about strategy, the other is about process.
First, Senator Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was persuaded that the previous year’s compromise on NSF language was unacceptable to the APSA and the community of scholars it represents. According to Kennelly and Freese, Senator Mikulski was initially under the impression that the Coburn amendment was a reasonable compromise because the language about only funding grants that are in the “national and economic interest” of the country, could be interpreted broadly enough that it would not curtail scholarship. Kennelly, then, was in the unenviable position of telling the formidable Mrs. Mikulski, her former colleague, that she was wrong. Fortunately for the members of the APSA, Kennelly was persuasive and Mikulski committed to keeping the restrictive language out of the bill.
Strategically, it may have also been important that Freese and Kennelly had lined up two other Senators to go to bat for political science research, should the need arise. They had commitments from Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), who is closely tied to the Kennelly family, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is a former recipient of NSF funding and had independently expressed interest in the NSF issue, that they would raise objections to a restrictive amendment should it have been proposed. These two strategic moves represent a significant shift in the APSA approach compared to 2013, where APSA advocacy was much shallower.
Procedurally, in the late stages of negotiations House and Senate leaders agreed to reconcile their differences through a back-and-forth process, where each chamber agrees to only consider consensus amendments, not individual ones, and then pass the whole bill to the other chamber. The back-and-forth process continues until the chambers have both passed the same bill. While this process of reconciling the differences between chambers is not wholly unusual, it has not been used in recent years because it requires an extreme amount of cooperation on the part of the Senate, where single senators can obstruct the process by objecting to unanimous consent agreements. When Senators agreed to work on the omnibus under these rules, they essentially eliminated the possibility of particularistic late-stage floor amendments, like we saw last year.
This leaves open the question as to why House Republicans did not try to amend NSF restrictions back into the Senate version of the bill when they received it.
The House Side
Former Speaker Tip O’Neil famously quipped that “the Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.” There might as well be a canyon under the Capitol rotunda, because the House and the Senate generally try not to deal with one another unless coerced to do so. One answer to the question about why the House did not reintroduce the Coburn language is because it came from the Senate. House appropriators may have been “unimpressed” with the last minute Senate additions in the 2013 bill and felt no need to move to include them when they got the 2014 version.
Moreover, the Republican House was under immense pressure to get the omnibus done. Republicans were still licking their wounds from the shutdown battle in fall 2013 and were eager to show constituents that they could get something done. Republican leadership in the House may have worried that putting controversial language back into the bill would have been too confrontational and could have jeopardized the omnibus.
While there are House Republicans who believe the government should not fund social science research, that battle has mostly been fought in the authorizing committee rather than in the appropriations process. When the House received the Senate bill sans Coburn language there wasn’t a single member of the House Appropriations Committee who cared enough about the issue to put it back into the bill. This suggests that if there is an anti-government-funding-of-social-science contingent out there, they were not well organized in the House.
The funding proponents (i.e., APSA lobbyists Kennelly and Freese), on the other hand, had lined up Rep. Nita Lowey, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, to keep an eye on the issue. Kennelly and Freese had a commitment from the staff that they would raise alarms if the language reared its head. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chair of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees science funding and historically a supporter of science funding, was said to also have his eye out for any interest in curtailing social science funding in the omnibus. Fortunately for the APSA, it did not.
So the bill made it back out of the House without any restrictive language on political science funding at NSF. After bouncing the bill back and forth a couple more times the chambers eventually adopted the same funding bill, which President Obama signed on Jan 17, 2014.
Did the Lobbying Make a Difference?
Through the efforts of the advocacy associations like COSSA and Kennelly Associates, the APSA had a series of watchdogs keeping a lookout for their interests this year, with a level of attentiveness to the issue of social science funding we have not seen before. Throughout the committee and floor stages, Senators Mikulski, Shelby, Murphy, and Warren were reportedly on the lookout for NSF restrictive language and ready to make a move against it should it have arisen. In the House, Reps. Wolf and Lowey were aware of APSA’s interests and prepared to take action. The organized lobby efforts that APSA took were certainly fruitful in terms of awareness and preparedness.
Of course, it’s possible that the interest in NSF restrictions had subdued enough that all this preparation was unnecessary. It’s also possible that APSA “lucked out” on procedure. That’s the thing about being prepared for events outs of your control—you can never be sure if you survived the storm because it wasn’t that bad, or because your sandbags, weather stripping, and storm windows worked.
So, were the resources that the APSA spent on lobbying to get NSF restrictions lifted worth it? It’s impossible to know what would have happened to NSF funding in the absence of the organized effort that the APSA took this year. However, it seems like getting Senator Mikulski to understand that the status quo was unacceptable was a key maneuver in the process. It turns that the APSA had Barbara Kennelly hired to deliver that message—Kennelly, who was Mikulski’s former House colleague, who has ties to appropriations, and is a political science professor. This appears to have been a wise strategy for the APSA. It’s possible that the Coburn language would have been left out anyway, but having COSSA and Kennelly Associates there to make sure was just smart politics.
Spending money on lobbyists in Washington is a bit like buying an insurance policy—how much of it you buy is in part dependent on your willingness to accept risk. Personally, I think we’re better off suiting up for the next storm.