Search form

Subject: Appropriations Endgame

Kevin B. Marvel, Executive Officer
J. Craig Wheeler, AAS President
Jack Burns, Chair, AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy (CAPP)


The appropriations process for FY 2008 has concluded and the promised increases for basic research have melted away, just like the early December snows in Washington. CAPP, the Executive Office, and the Council are actively reviewing the outcome and beginning to formulate a strategy for FY 2009. When member input can significantly impact the process, we will issue an Action Alert. This Informational Email is meant to provide AAS members a snapshot of the current situation.


The Appropriations process begins each year with the President submitting the proposed budget to Congress at the beginning of February. Congress then begins hearings to review the proposed budget and ultimately to enact appropriations bills, which (usually after negotiation) the President signs into law. As described in the last Newsletter, the AAS has established an astronomy policy wiki [], which describes the science policy ecosystem. It is being actively updated and revised by CAPP members and AAS leadership.

The budget process is supposed to be completed by the end of September after a full and open discussion of the President's proposed budget and modifications to that budget by Congress. This deadline has been only rarely met in the past two decades and was not met again this year. The benefit of this system is that differences in priorities can be negotiated in the final government expenditures. The downside is that prolonged debates between the Executive and Legislative branches cause plans and activities at the Federal agencies (including grants for basic research) to be delayed, yielding unintended negative consequences.

In the early stages of the process, interested parties approach Congress to advocate for their particular projects or programs and hope that their message stays in the minds of legislators through the whole appropriations cycle. At certain times late in the process, specific communications can have a positive impact. Often, as has happened this year, the final process is dominated by macro-issues. Input from concerned individuals and groups are still valued and members may respond, however, the impact of individual concerns late in the process is greatly reduced.

These activities determine when the AAS issues Action Alerts. We strive to ensure that AAS member's communications with policy makers are timed to have influence. We also advocate behind the scenes in a variety of ways, usually through communications with key individuals on issues of direct importance to astronomy. Sometimes, lack of public action can be seen as no action at all; but often no action really means that we have assessed the situation carefully and deem it not productive to weigh in with community letters at that juncture, or are pursuing quiet strategies. We use the Newsletter and web page to keep members informed of what is happening and what the AAS is doing to help. Stay tuned for Action Alerts, which we only distribute when we really need your help and you can have a direct impact.

The Current Situation

This year's appropriations endgame was dominated by a standoff between the Congress and the President. Debates about relative priorities of different programs were left behind; while the discussion shifted to two fundamentally different visions of how the US should spend its money and to the ongoing battle over Congressional earmarks. The President drew a line in the sand and Congress ultimately had to step up to his mark due to insufficient votes to override potential Presidential vetoes.

The basic governance issue involves which branch of government sets priorities for federal expenditures. President Bush wanted no more money than he requested to be spent by federal agencies in FY08, while Congress sought to increase the amount expended and to impose policy on the President through the power of the purse. The President won and an omnibus appropriations bill was ultimately passed, with highly disappointing results for a variety of programs, including science.

Where does science (and astronomy in particular) stand for FY2008? The American Competitiveness Initiative, which was vigorously supported by the President and both parties in Congress, favors the physical sciences (DOE, NSF and NIST in particular) and was strengthened by Congressional passage of the America COMPETES Act. But, unfortunately, the initiative was not funded at the level proposed by the President or Congress. Congress, in its omnibus appropriations bill agreed to on December 19, gutted these efforts, leaving the science policy community depressed and upset, yet determined to work again next year to increase the substantial support for science funding increases and carry this support through to the final appropriations legislation.

The agencies that support physical science suffered grievous losses. NSF, slated to get an 8.7% increase from the President and more than 10% from Congress ended up with only 2.5% overall and only 1% in its R&D funding over the current budget level. The Department of Energy Office of Science was allocated an increase of only 2.6%, far below the than 15% proposed by the President and more than 16% originally planned by Congress. This poor outcome has serious ramifications for the research labs in particular as well as for basic research more generally.

NASA received a nearly 6% increase in its overall R&D budget, but basic research funding (the type that funds astronomers) is actually less than that proposed by the President by 0.3% and -1.8% below FY 2007 levels [AAAS Omnibus update 12/20/07]. Factoring in inflation, NASA's science research budget will be effectively less than last year's expenditures. Further, the hard work of Senators Mikulski and Hutchison to boost NASA's budget through an appropriations amendment were not successful. Details are still being understood and a more complete analysis of the impact will be distributed to AAS members later in January 2008.

Moving Forward

Setbacks like this year's appropriations process take a while to overcome. The spirit of the science policy community here in Washington has been dealt a serious blow, but not a fatal one. Science advocates, grumbling now and issuing statements of frustration, will soon be gathering their energies with renewed focus on the FY2009 appropriations process. We currently anticipate the President to once again support the goals of the American Competitiveness Initiative in his FY2009 budget proposal. We must work hard during the coming year to convince Congress that although some issues may appear more significant in the short-term, there is nothing as important for the long-term success of our Nation than investing in basic research in all disciplines, especially the physical sciences.

During this year, the actions of individual AAS members will play an important role at crucial times. When you receive an AAS Action Alert, please take the time to read it, educate yourself and consider taking the suggested action, whether it is a phone call or letter. You can be assured that, when called for in an Action Alert, your effort will have an impact. Get ready to help us secure a brighter future for basic research and astronomy during 2008. We need your help, just as our Nation needs the help of basic research.


Mailed US members from 28 December 2007

To read this AAS Informational Email online visit:

To read previous AAS Informational Emails visit:

To read previous AAS Action Alerts visit:

Comments and questions to: marvel at