Shutdown Stalemate Continues as New Congress Convenes

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Publication date: 
3 January 2019

At the top of the agenda for the new Congress is to negotiate an end to the current partial government shutdown, which has largely shuttered several federal science agencies.


NIST shutdown banner

A banner currently displayed on the website of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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After the 115th Congress ended with no resolution to the partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, it will be up to the 116th Congress to resolve the current impasse over border security funding.

Shortly after Democrats take control of the House today, they plan to pass legislation that would fully reopen the government. The measure does not include money that President Trump has demanded for building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and hews closely to bills the Senate previously advanced on a bipartisan basis.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he will not schedule a vote on a deal that Trump does not support. In a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Trump said he is prepared to extend the shutdown “as long as it takes” to get the money he is seeking for a wall.

Among the science agencies affected by the shutdown are NASA, the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Geological Survey, and Environmental Protection Agency. Some science-supporting agencies are spared from the shutdown because they already received their final appropriations for the year, including the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and National Institutes of Health.

The shutdown is now nearing the duration of two previous shutdowns in recent history that lasted more than two weeks. A standoff over health care policy during the Obama administration caused a 16-day shutdown in fiscal year 2014, and protracted confrontation over budget policy during the Clinton administration led to a 21-day partial shutdown in fiscal year 1996, the longest on record.

Impacts vary across science agencies

Although the initial impacts of the shutdown were tempered by the usual holiday lull in government activities, it will cause increasing disruption as it continues. Employees of affected agencies will not receive paychecks and federal grant and contract payments will not be disbursed for the duration of the shutdown. Moreover, agencies are limiting their activities to those deemed necessary to protect life and property.

All government agencies have produced contingency plans that describe activities they will continue or curtail during a shutdown and provide estimates of the number of workers affected. All of the plans are posted here.

Most science agency employees conduct “non-excepted” activities and have been furloughed. They are not permitted to conduct any government-related work, even on a volunteer basis. Furloughed workers have no guarantee of back pay, though Congress has approved retroactive compensation following previous shutdowns.

Among those exempt from the furlough are approximately 3,300 employees of the National Weather Service, which is a part of NOAA. Their role in providing weather forecasts and warnings to the public is considered essential, though they cannot be paid for their work until the government reopens.

One major consequence of the furloughs is that most government scientists will be unable to attend upcoming scientific community meetings. Two major events that typically draw many federal attendees start this weekend: the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting and the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting. Representatives of each society discussed how the shutdown could upend these meetings in a recent Washington Post article. (Both organizations are AIP Member Societies).

AAS estimates that about 10-15 percent of the registrants for the meeting will be unable to attend due to the shutdown. AMS also expects a significant fraction of its meeting registrants will be impacted. NOAA has cancelled all of its participation in the event.


Shutdown Furlough Chart

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Impacts on research activities vary across science agencies due to differences in how each uses external grantees and contractors to carry out their missions. For example, while most NSF employees are now furloughed, many of the projects the agency supports can continue in the near term because external grantees are able to use funds that have already been disbursed to them.

Similarly, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is operated by Caltech, can continue operations so long as they have funds on hand. Some agency-operated facilities that cannot be shuttered without severe disruption will also be staffed during the shutdown, such as NSF’s research bases in Antarctica and NASA’s International Space Station.

However, many agency science activities have now ground to a halt. For instance, USGS’ National Earthquake Information Center is operating with less than a half of its staff, though others could be activated in the event of a natural disaster. NIST’s Center for Neutron Research is closed and only personnel necessary for the orderly shutdown and monitoring of its reactor are permitted to work. Across agencies, activities relating to reviewing grant applications have been postponed indefinitely.

A 2013 report by the White House Office of Management and Budget on the effects of a previous shutdown provides further examples of disruptions to science agencies. It catalogs how hundreds of hours of observing time were lost at NSF-funded telescopes, dozens of experiments scheduled by external researchers at NIST were cancelled, and a research campaign in Antarctica had to be called off because NSF facilities could not be taken out of “caretaker” status in time.

Emphasizing the negative impacts on the federal workforce, the report concluded, “At the end of the day, the government shutdown risks seriously damaging the ability to attract and retain the kind of driven, patriotic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands.”

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