The president’s budget and House and Senate appropriations proposals for fiscal year 2017 included multiple funding and programmatic changes for the federal science agencies, but these changes are in limbo after lawmakers extended the federal government’s spending on a continuing resolution through April 28.
(Image credit – DOE)
Less than an hour before a looming midnight deadline on Dec. 9, the Senate broke through a political impasse related to coal miners’ benefits and voted 63 to 36 to clear a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the government through April 28. The House had already passed the resolution on a 326 to 96 vote the day before, and President Obama signed it early the next morning.
The measure ensures the federal government will have the funds to operate for another four and half months, and it averts a government shutdown that had been imminent. It specifically sets federal discretionary spending, a category which includes nearly all federal defense and non-defense R&D programs, at an annual rate of $1.07 trillion. This is the maximum rate allowed under current budget law and nearly the same as the fiscal year 2016 spending rate.
The CR proved controversial with many lawmakers, including many House and Senate appropriators and Defense Department leaders, who opposed congressional leadership’s approach and preferred that Congress finalize the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills before the end of the year.
Funding uncertainty under CR poses challenges for science agencies
Federal departments and agencies, including the science agencies and programs, will now face uncertainty about the total funds they have to spend for the upcoming year. They will likely respond by spending conservatively in the first months of 2017 as a precaution.
In addition, they will be barred from starting new programs or stopping old ones and from implementing funding increases submitted in the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request. Unless Congress passes the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills, funding changes and program guidance included in the House and Senate versions of the bills will not carry their full weight either.
Planning almost always becomes more difficult for science agency and laboratory leadership under a CR. For programs facing the prospect of funding cuts in this year’s appropriations proposals, such as the NASA Science Mission Directorate or Defense Department’s basic research account, the uncertainty of the CR poses added challenges, making it difficult for administrators to ascertain or mitigate potential resource shortfalls.
The same holds true for agencies and programs slated to receive funding boosts. In the House Labor-HHS appropriations bill, NIH would receive a $2 billion funding increase, but that increase, and those proposed for any science agency or program, will require appropriations legislation. Such increases are now in jeopardy.
Altogether, the lack of clarity threatens to delay important scientific projects in the pipeline and add to long-term costs. For example, the Department of Energy Office of Science’s request for funds to construct the new Long Baseline Neutrino Facility at Fermilab received support in both the House and Senate Energy-Water appropriations bills. Without full congressional approval of this appropriations legislation, the new construction project, and others like it, will not be able to proceed at the planned pace during the course of the CR.
Special spending authority for NIH, NOAA satellites, and NASA exploration
The CR does include special spending authority, or so-called “anomalies,” in three areas of importance to science: NIH research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellites, and NASA space exploration.
The bill includes $352 million in spending for the NIH above and beyond its FY 2016 appropriation, as part of the 21st Century Cures Act that President Obama is expected to sign into law today. These extra research dollars are already offset by designated funding cuts elsewhere in the federal government, and the spending is earmarked for three of the president’s biomedical innovation initiatives: the Precision Medicine, BRAIN, and Cancer Moonshot Initiatives.
The bill also permits NOAA to increase its rate of spending on its Joint Polar Satellite System in order to keep the first of the nation’s next-generation polar satellites on schedule for launch. And it permits NASA to increase its spending rate on the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System, to ensure the space agency does not fall behind in the development of next-generation space exploration capabilities.
Congress fulfilled Trump request over objections of appropriators and Pentagon
Immediately following the Nov. 9 general election, House and Senate appropriators still spoke optimistically about completing appropriations before the end of the Congress. In mid-November, that changed after President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team requested that Congress strategically delay all decisions on fiscal year 2017 spending until after Trump is in office.
This approach would allow Trump to weigh in and could lend the Republican-led Congress greater leverage in negotiating its budget priorities. At a closed meeting on Nov. 17, the majority of the House Republican caucus decided to back Trump’s preferred approach, and by the end of November Senate Republican leadership had acceded as well.
Congressional leaders’ decision not to pass the appropriations bills on which they had been working all year rankled the Pentagon and key appropriators in the House and Senate. Defense Secretary Ash Carter lamented Congress’ decision in a letter to Republican congressional leadership, saying, “This is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we have so many troops operating in harm’s way,” adding that CR would mean the Defense Department is “locked into last year’s budget with last year’s priorities.”
On the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called the approach a “cockamamie idea,” a “disgrace,” and an “abrogation of our responsibilities.” He added, “Fresh off an election where the American people were clear that they are fed up with business as usual, that’s exactly what we’re about to get if Congress adopts another continuing resolution.”
As reported by CQ Roll Call, senior appropriator Tom Cole (R-OK) remarked:
I think it’s a bad decision and I think…we’ll live to regret it. We should have finished it up, honestly, this year. We could have. And we would have had budget stability. Now we’re cramming a lot into next year and we’re already delaying it.
Cole added that he suspects Congress will do the “easy thing” next April, which is to pass another CR extending government spending through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. With such an approach, Congress would be waiving its prerogative to shape federal appropriations for fiscal year 2017.
Even if Congress does pass appropriations legislation, 2017 funding outcomes will now most likely be unknown until April, more than half way through the fiscal year. In addition, the 115th Congress and new Trump administration will be tasked with finishing fiscal year 2017 appropriations at the same time as they start development of the fiscal year 2018 budget resolution and appropriations bills and otherwise work to advance the administration's first 100 days agenda.
Retiring Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) called the decision to advance a CR “absolutely outrageous.” “I’m very frustrated about this. It did not have to be this way,” she said on the Senate floor, before listing off the problems she says a CR would create.
Moments before the House passed the spending extension on Friday night, outgoing House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) spoke on the floor and expressed his regrets as well, but by then his focus had shifted to looking forward:
I’ve said on this floor many times over the past six years – standing in this exact spot – a continuing resolution is a last resort. It’s not what I would prefer to bring to the floor as my final bill as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee... It’s absolutely imperative that we complete work on the…remaining appropriations bills as soon as possible when Congress returns.
With lawmakers in both the House and Senate now returning to their districts for the holidays, the passage of the CR concludes what is expected to be the 114th Congress’ final session. The 115th Congress will convene for the first time on Jan. 3, tasked now with completing two years’ worth of appropriations by the end of the fiscal year.