Infrastructure Deal vs Budget Reconciliation, and how Research Fits into It All

Last week, the Senate made headlines with the passage of the $1+ trillion infrastructure deal. This was a major step towards getting a final infrastructure deal done, which has been a major priority for the Biden Administration and Congressional leadership. However, now events in Congress are shifting to the budget reconciliation process. What’s the difference? And where, and how, do the research agencies and their budgets fit into all this?

First, let’s take a step back. Regular readers will recall that in April, the Biden Administration released their infrastructure plan, dubbed the American Jobs Plan, which called for $2 trillion in investments in infrastructure, broadly conceived. Research figured quite prominently in that plan, with the President calling for significant investments in R&D ($30 billion) and scientific infrastructure upgrades ($40 billion). A new tech directorate at NSF was also included.

However, selling Senate Republicans on such an expansive infrastructure plan was always going to be a tough task for the White House, and so it was no surprise when talks broke down earlier this summer without a deal. Negotiations moved to a couple of bipartisan efforts in the Senate, and it became clear that a smaller infrastructure deal — one based on traditional infrastructure projects (such as bridges and roads – aka “hard infrastructure”) – would be the likely path forward.

But the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate also pledged to use the budget reconciliation process as a sort of “second-track” to enact their priorities that were left out of the smaller “hard infrastructure” bill. Using the reconciliation process – a means for Congress to adjust an already approved budget to add (or subtract) current year funding – has many advantages for Democrats, including the fact that it requires only a simple majority for passage and the process is filibuster-proof. But it has complications, too. Not all proposals are eligible for reconciliation, so the Senate and House parliamentarians will have to make determinations about the germaneness of any particular proposal. Also, the Democratic majority is slim enough that moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) could object to spending levels and wield considerable leverage in determining what makes the final package.

So, the “hard infrastructure” deal, not surprisingly, doesn’t include much in the way of research funding. However, it does have a few notable provisions for the computing community:

– A five-year, $100 million a year SMART grant program at the Department of Transportation (DOT)*;
– several intelligent transportation and smart communities pilot programs are established at DOT;
– a new ARPA program (ARPA-Infrastructure) would be established at DOT;
– an entire title of the bill is dedicated to expanding broadband access; and
– several provisions with regard to cybersecurity, particularly with regard to protecting infrastructure and local governments.

We expect research will get more attention in the reconciliation process.

As that work begins, we’re getting our first insights into what the research pieces of the reconciliation bill might look like. The proposed budget resolution in the Senate, S. Con. Res. 14, gives us a framework of what to expect. That proposed legislation provides authority to the assorted authorization committees to increase budget levels for the years 2022 to 2031. For example, the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Science Committees, which has oversight of NSF, NASA, and NIST, would be allowed to increase budgets under their jurisdiction by $83 billion in that ten-year timeframe. A memo from leadership to Democratic senators explains that the increases for the committee’s budgets should be for investments in technology, transportation, research, manufacturing, economic development, and a new research and technology directorate for NSF. On the House side, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee would be able to increase budgets under its purview by $45.5 billion over those years. The Senate Energy & Natural Resource Committee, which oversees the Department of Energy programs, would receive $198 billion in addition authority to increase budgets; research infrastructure for DOE labs is listed as a priority in the aforementioned Democratic memo. While none of these call out any specific research budgets, given all the attention the federal research agencies have received this year from Congress, odds are good that they might be among the beneficiaries of these funding increases.

But this process is still far from over. The House still has to take up its own version of the “hard infrastructure” bill, as well as come to an agreement about reconciliation, and then both chambers will need to reach agreement on a final deal. The budget reconciliation process itself is quite controversial; nothing should be assumed to be accomplished just yet.

We’ll be keeping tabs on the process and will report any new developments. Please keep checking back for updates.

* – Updated post on 11/9/21 to include the SMART grant program at DOT.

Infrastructure Deal vs Budget Reconciliation, and how Research Fits into It All