House appropriators advanced a measure Thursday to fund the Justice and Commerce departments, along with science agencies, after endorsing a GOP gun proposal and sidelining a series of Democratic firearm policy amendments.
The draft fiscal 2015 bill would provide $51.2 billion in discretionary funds, a $398 million decrease from currently enacted spending levels. The Appropriations Committee approved the measure by voice vote.
Panel members earlier voted 29-18 to add a proposal from Texas Republican John Carter to withhold funding for efforts to make gun dealers inform the Justice Department when they sell multiple rifles or shotguns to the same person.
The proposal aims to stymie an Obama administration requirement that gun dealers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they sell two or more of certain high-powered long guns to the same buyer within five days.
The administration says the policy is designed to counter violence along the Southwestern border, but many gun rights advocates view it as a veiled form of government gun registration.
On Thursday, Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., called the policy “a prudent thing we can do” to counter straw purchasers, a term for those who buy weapons for others not legally allowed to do so themselves. But Carter said the policy amounts to discrimination against those living in the region.
Meanwhile, the panel rejected 18-29 a proposal from Mike Quigley to repeal language in a fiscal 2013 appropriations law (PL 113-6) that would permanently block funds for any federal rule requiring gun dealers to conduct physical inventories.
The existing funding ban prevents the ATF from “effectively identifying lost or stolen guns,” Quigley, D-Ill., said, calling his proposal “one small step” toward keeping guns away from dangerous individuals.
Co-sponsor Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called the ban a “dangerous policy rider” that “needlessly endangers public safety.”
But Carter argued the proposal would burden small businesses.
Appropriators also rejected 18-29 a James P. Moran, D-Va., amendment to require gun dealers to conduct background checks on their prospective employees.
His proposal, Moran said, would apply the “same process that any gun purchaser goes through” to those selling firearms.
Democrats withdrew two other gun-related policy amendments: one from Moran to strip bill language that would block funding for implementation of an international arms trade treaty unless the Senate ratifies the proposal, and a Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., amendment to give the attorney general more leeway to deny gun transfers to buyers with ties to terrorism.
Marijuana and Law Enforcement Grants
On an issue likely to resurface on the House floor, the committee debated a Sam Farr amendment to bar the Justice Department from using its funding to prosecute medical marijuana users who are abiding by their state’s law.
The California Democrat said it is time to have an “adult conversation” about marijuana, urging the Food and Drug Administration to study the substance’s medical benefits.
Andy Harris, R-Md., an anesthesiologist, opposed the amendment, saying that the government has a “systematic way” of looking at controlled substances and that the amendment would make an exception for marijuana.
Farr ultimately withdrew his amendment, but the proposal is expected to come up again when the spending bill reaches the full House.
Also Thursday, the House panel rejected 20-26 a Barbara Lee, D-Calif., amendment to reverse much of the bill’s proposed cut to community policing grants.
The spending measure would provide the Justice Department with $27.8 billion, a $383 million increase from current funding. But it would cut funding for DOJ grant programs, including a sharp reduction for Community Oriented Policing Services hiring grants used to hire or retain local police officers.
The bill would provide $70 million, or less than half of the $180 million appropriated for the current fiscal year. Lee’s amendment would have bumped that total up to $177 million.
Lee also offered, but later withdrew, a proposal to boost the bill’s $63 million funding level for grants given to states and localities under the 2008 Second Chance Act (PL 110-199) to help pay for programs that help inmates successfully transition out of incarceration and avoid returning to prison.
“If we are serious about reducing our prison population [and] reducing our spending on mass incarceration ... then we must also invest in reentry programs that have been proven to lower the unacceptable recidivism rate. And that’s exactly what the Second Chance Act does,” said Lee.
Her amendment would have increased the funding level by $35 million to a total of $98 million. The Obama administration requested $115 million for the program.
Lee said Thursday she hoped to work to “find additional resources for this important program” as the bill moves forward.
On another perennial point of contention, the panel rejected by voice vote a Moran amendment to strike language that withholds funds for transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to the United States.
Commerce and Science Funding
The measure would provide $8.4 billion for the Commerce Department, a $171 million increase above currently enacted levels. Within that agency, House appropriators would keep funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “virtually equal” to fiscal 2014 at $5.3 billion, according to the committee, while emphasizing spending on weather forecasting and warning systems.
“Simply put: these investments save lives. They saved lives in Arkansas and Mississippi, and they will save lives wherever the next severe weather event strikes,” said C-J-S subcommittee Chairman Frank R. Wolf, R-Va.
Despite the relatively flat funding for NOAA, some of the committee’s top Democrats slammed GOP cuts to the agency’s programs outside of weather forecasting, particularly a 24 percent reduction to the climate research account.
“We should be investing in research to combat the threat of climate change, not sticking our heads in the sand, pretending the science is wrong because combating such an obstacle would be too costly and inconvenient,” said Lowey.
Also within the Commerce Department, the fiscal 2015 spending bill would boost funding for the Census Bureau by nearly 16 percent to $1.1 billion in order to prepare for the next decennial census.
The measure would expand on recent increases for space exploration, setting aside $17.9 billion for NASA, which consumes the largest share of the measure’s science funding, a $237 million boost from fiscal 2014. It would also fund the National Science Foundation at a record-high level of $7.4 billion, according to Wolf.
Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., introduced but later withdrew an amendment that would have increased funding for the National Science Foundation by $659.2 million. Price said that funding for basic scientific research has eroded in recent years.
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves: underfunding basic research will harm other research” across the public and private spheres, he said. “We must do better,” he said.
Wolf defended the amount of funding the bill gives to NSF, which he said was at a record-high level and more than $250 million above the White House request.
Some people say that Republicans don’t fund science programs, Wolf said, “but this is a Republican House and we have the highest [funding] for NSF that we’ve ever had.” Wolf added that he is also concerned that the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in research funding.
The committee adopted, by voice vote, a Republican amendment that would boost funding for NOAA’s pacific coastal salmon recovery program by $15 million — with offsets from the Census Bureau and the National Science Foundation — and also adopted a provision related to the determination of locations of federal conferences.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.