Congress Passes Expansive Spending and Energy Policy Bill

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Publication date: 
December 22, 2020

In a last-minute deal, Congress finalized agency budgets for fiscal year 2021, approved nearly a trillion dollars in additional pandemic response funding, and enacted major energy R&D policy reforms that have been in the works for the past two years.


Image credit – Architect of the Capitol

Over the weekend, Congress struck a deal on a legislative package that finalizes appropriations for fiscal year 2021, provides roughly $900 billion in pandemic-response funding, and makes the most significant updates to federal energy policy in more than a decade.

The House passed the package on vote of 359 to 53 yesterday and the Senate quickly followed suit with a vote of 92 to 6. In parallel, Congress passed a one week stopgap spending bill to avert the possibility of a government shutdown as the legislation was finalized for submission to the White House. President Trump signed the stopgap late last night and is expected to sign the main bill soon.

The deal yielded few surprises for science funding, with most agencies in line for level budgets or moderate increases near the amounts proposed by the House and Senate. The COVID-19 provisions include no funds to address disruptions to research projects, which the Research Investment to Spark the Economy (RISE) Act had called for, nor do they include “emergency” stimulus spending on science facilities of the kind House Democrats had proposed. The bill does provide $23 billion in general relief funds for higher education institutions, but that is much less than the $120 billion requested by university associations.

The package’s energy policy provisions, called the Energy Act, reconcile bills advanced in the Senate and House earlier this year. Although they provide no funding directly, the provisions do recommend future appropriations across Department of Energy programs, including large increases for carbon management R&D, advanced nuclear reactor technology, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The act also establishes several new R&D and technology demonstration programs, and a companion measure mandating the phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons is being hailed in many quarters as an especially important step in mitigating climate change.

Highlights of the funding and policy components of the bills are summarized below, and program-level spending outcomes are detailed in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Department of Energy

The $7 billion budget for the DOE Office of Science is increasing marginally, with all programs funded at or just above their fiscal year 2020 levels. Similarly, DOE’s offices for applied energy R&D will all receive level funding or modest increases.

QIS and AI. Congress directs the Office of Science to increase funding for quantum information science by at least 26% to $245 million and for artificial intelligence and machine learning by at least 41% to $100 million.

User facility upgrades. All light and neutron source user facility upgrades currently in planning or under construction will receive steady funding. In addition, the new Linac Coherent Light Source II facility at SLAC National Accelerator Lab is receiving $33 million it needs to continue toward completion after its fully appropriated construction budget was drained by pandemic-related disruptions. 

Nuclear fusion. DOE’s contribution to the France-based ITER fusion facility will remain even at $242 million, of which $60 million is for cash contributions. Congress also directs DOE to submit baseline cost and schedule estimates for the project, which have previously been left open-ended. The Energy Act reinforces prior congressional direction that the Office of Science support work in inertial fusion energy and it also establishes a new public-private “milestone-based fusion energy development program” that aims to foster a U.S.-based fusion power industry.

Nuclear energy. The Energy Act cements DOE’s new Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program in statute and recommends Congress immediately ramp up its annual budget to more than $400 million. However, the program’s actual budget is only increasing from $230 million to $250 million in the current fiscal year. Separately, DOE had sought to increase the budget for its planned Versatile Test Reactor project from $65 million to $295 million, but Congress is slowing work on the facility, decreasing spending to $45 million with direction to reformulate it as a “public-private partnership with an option for a payment-for-milestones approach.”

Carbon management. Funding for the Office of Fossil Energy’s carbon capture, utilization, and storage programs is increasing from $218 million to $228 million. Funding specifically for negative emissions technologies across that office, the Office of Science, and DOE’s energy efficiency and renewable energy office is increasing from about $50 million to at least $72.5 million, with at least $32.5 million allocated for technologies that remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. The Energy Act calls for markedly expanding DOE’s efforts in carbon management technology R&D and it establishes a government-wide Industrial Emissions Reduction Technology Development Program, recommending that demonstration projects be funded at a level ramping up to $150 million annually by fiscal year 2024.

Energy storage. The Energy Act establishes a unified DOE program for energy storage system R&D, development, and deployment and recommends that Congress fund it at about $200 million annually.

ARPA–E. The budget for the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy is edging up from $425 million to $427 million. The Energy Act recommends that Congress ramp its budget up to $761 million by fiscal year 2025 and expands the agency’s mission to encompass nuclear waste cleanup and efforts to improve the resilience, reliability, and security of energy systems.

National Nuclear Security Administration

The budget for NNSA will increase just over $3 billion to $19.7 billion, nearly matching the Trump administration’s request. Most of the additional resources are directed toward nuclear infrastructure modernization efforts, such as reconstituting plutonium production capabilities at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. 

Weapons research. Funding for Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering will increase 10% to $2.81 billion, slightly exceeding the request. Congress provides full support to the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiment project, which is developing a new plutonium imaging facility, but directs NNSA to produce a “contingency plan” if it is not completed on schedule. The project’s estimated cost recently increased from about $0.80 billion to $1.06 billion. NNSA’s Inertial Confinement Fusion budget will increase 3% to $575 million, with all its major fusion facilities receiving at least level funding.

Nonproliferation. The budget for nuclear nonproliferation programs will increase 4% overall to $2.26 billion, with much of the additional resources directed toward nuclear detonation detection R&D and efforts to secure nuclear materials domestically and abroad. Congress matches the requested amounts for a new nuclear forensics R&D initiative and the recently launched Nonproliferation Stewardship Program, which aims to help ensure NNSA has the foundational technical capabilities and workforce needed to address emerging proliferation threats.


NASA’s budget is increasing 3% to $23.3 billion, with much of the boost going to human exploration activities. However, the increase is far short of the requested amount, effectively dashing the Trump administration’s goal of achieving a crewed lunar landing in 2024. NASA’s science divisions will maintain mostly steady budgets, with heliophysics activities receiving a significant proportional increase.

Proposed mission cancellations. The Roman Space Telescope, SOFIA airborne telescope, PACE Earth science satellite, and CLARREO Pathfinder instrument will all receive full funding, despite proposals from the Trump administration to cancel them.

Europa Clipper. Funded at $404 million, the Europa Clipper will proceed apace toward a launch as early as 2024. For the first time, Congress has altered its requirement that the spacecraft launch using NASA’s in-development Space Launch System rocket, stating it shall use the rocket if it is “available” and if “torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.” If those conditions are not met, NASA is to conduct an open competition for a commercial launch vehicle, which the agency anticipates would save more than $1.5 billion. The Clipper is due to complete its critical design review in the near future, at which point NASA is expected to make a decision on the matter.

Mars missions. Congress is ramping up funding for the Mars Sample Return mission to $264 million, aiming for a launch in 2026, in spite of a recent recommendation by an independent review that it pursue a less compressed schedule. NASA is also directed to submit a science plan for purchasing the services of a commercially operated deep space relay for maintaining contact with Mars surface missions as existing communications assets reach the end of their lifespans. Congress retains direction from House appropriators protecting the currently operating Mars Odyssey orbiter from cancellation.

New heliophysics missions. Within a 4% increase in the Heliophysics Division budget, Congress is providing $15 million more than NASA requested for early work on the Geospace Dynamics Constellation as well as $10 million to begin work on the DYNAMIC (Dynamical Neutral Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling) mission. Both missions were prioritized by the 2013 heliophysics decadal survey for launch early this decade.

National Science Foundation

Research programs. Congress is increasing the budget for NSF’s disciplinary research directorates by 3% to $6.91 billion and for its education directorate by 3% to $968 million. Congress directs NSF to provide at least level support for “core research,” which it notes encompasses observational networks, research infrastructure, and federally funded research and development centers. It also singles out a few initiatives and programs, supporting NSF’s request to increase funding for quantum information science by 113% to $226 million and artificial intelligence research by 87% to $868 million over the fiscal year 2019 amounts. It further directs NSF to increase funding for its EPSCoR program by at least 5% to $200 million, supporting projects in states that receive a low proportion of federal research funds.

Major facilities. Funding for major facility and equipment construction will stay essentially level at $241 million, providing the requested amounts for construction of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and the in-progress upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider and infrastructure at NSF’s McMurdo base in Antarctica. Congress also provides NSF’s mid-scale research infrastructure-2 program with $76 million, an $11 million increase, and encourages the agency to make at least one award to a project led by an institution in an EPSCoR state.

Arecibo Observatory. Commenting on the recent collapse of the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, Congress directs NSF to report within 60 days on “causes and extent of the damage” as well as "the process for determining whether to establish comparable technology at the site, along with any associated cost estimates."

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 

Research programs. The budget for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will increase 4% to $614 million, with about half the additional resources directed to climate research. NOAA is directed to spend $9 million of the climate research budget on studies of “stratospheric conditions and the Earth's radiation budget,” a $5 million increase over the amount specified last year. The bill also directs NOAA to spend at least $13 million toward establishing the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, $5 million above the current level. In lieu of a House proposal that NOAA fund a decadal survey for the weather enterprise, the bill directs the agency’s science advisory board to publish a report within a year that helps policymakers prioritize investments in weather forecasting, modeling, data assimilation, and supercomputing over the next ten years. 

Satellite programs. The bill provides the requested amounts for NOAA’s programs to acquire next-generation geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites as well as new space weather monitoring capabilities. It further creates a new program focused on developing innovative mission concepts for the following generation of satellites. Congress also accepts the administration’s proposal to create an expanded Office of Space Commerce that will take on a greater role in space traffic management, though it will remain in NOAA rather than be elevated within the Department of Commerce as proposed.

National Institute of Standards and Technology 

Research programs. The budget for NIST’s main research account will increase 5% to $788 million. NIST is directed to increase support for quantum information science from $40 million to $46.5 million and likewise increase funding for artificial intelligence research by at least $6.5 million. Smaller increases are specified for programs in forensics sciences, materials research, and carbon dioxide monitoring and removal.

Facilities repair. Congress cuts NIST’s budget for facilities construction and repair by a third to $80 million and does not accept its proposal to finance renovations to its Boulder, Colorado,  campus through a special capital account. Congress also directs the agency to commission an independent assessment of the “comprehensive capital needs of NIST's campuses.” 

Department of Defense

Funding for DOD’s Science and Technology portfolio — comprising basic research, applied research, and advanced technology development — will increase 5% to $16.9 billion, though various programs within the military service branches will still see cuts. This budget well exceeds the amounts initially proposed by the House and Senate. The lion’s share of the increase is directed toward applied research and advanced technology development in the Army as well as basic research at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Overall funding for research, development, testing, and evaluation across DOD will increase about 2% to $111 billion.

U.S. Geological Survey

The USGS budget will increase 4% to $1.3 billion, above both the House and Senate proposals. Congress accepts the agency’s proposal to restructure its Ecosystems and Core Science Systems missions areas, which together will subsume its land imagining and climate change research programs. The Natural Hazards and the Energy and Mineral Resources mission areas are unaffected. Much of the agency’s additional funding is directed to geological mapping and water monitoring programs. The bill also doubles funding for the landslide hazards program to $8 million and provides mostly level support for programs focused on earthquake, volcano, marine, and geomagnetic hazards.

National Institutes of Health 

NIH’s base budget is increasing 3% to just under $43 billion, marking the sixth year in a row the agency has received a boost of over $1 billion. Most of NIH’s component institutes will receive budget increases of between 1.5% and 3%, except for those focused on aging and minority health disparities, which will see significantly larger increases. The bill also includes an extra $1.25 billion for NIH to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally," adding to the more than $3 billion NIH has received through previous pandemic response bills.

Among a number of marquee initiatives, Congress supports NIH’s emerging artificial intelligence and data science efforts, providing $105 million to support research grants and efforts to increase access to large biomedical datasets. Among Congress’ extensive policy direction for NIH are requirements to strengthen its approaches to combatting sexual harassment and securing the research it funds from exploitation by foreign governments.