20 July 2023

Understanding the FY24 Appropriations Bills

Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)

Last week, the Senate and House introduced their funding bills for the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) agencies, which include NASA and NSF. If passed into law, the bills will set the funding levels and program priorities for the 2024 fiscal year (FY24), which runs from October 2023 to September 2024. Further down we will explore what is within these bills, but first, let’s take a look at the appropriations process as a whole.

An Overview of the Budget Process 

This whole process starts with the Presidential Budget Request (PBR), in which the president lays out their goals for the various federal agencies and the funding requested to meet those goals. This year’s request for NASA and NSF asks for $27.2 billion and $11.3 billion, respectively. The agencies then release their own reports on how they intend to operate in line with the PBR. We published blog posts on the NASA and NSF PBR reports back in May. Under this advisement, Congress will determine the actual funding levels through the appropriations process. The House and Senate CJS subcommittees will then write the initial appropriations bills and vote on them. The bills are then sent to the full appropriations committee in each chamber, and then they will be sent to the House or Senate floor for a full vote. During the subcommittee and committee meetings, the bills undergo markups, where members can introduce amendments to the funding levels and stipulations in the bill. Since the House and Senate can introduce their own appropriations bills, any differences must be ironed out before they can become law. 

This year, congressional budget negations have led to a significant spending cap that would have cut all CJS funding by over 20%. For the past few months, the AAS has been working with coalitions of organizations to advocate against significant cuts and request that $9 billion be appropriated for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and $11.9 billion be appropriated for the NSF top-level funding

The Senate CJS Bill 

On July 13th, the Senate voted on the CJS bill in the full appropriations committee, skipping the subcommittee proceedings. In their bill, they appropriated $25 billion for NASA, slightly below the FY23 level of $25.4 billion. In addition to the bill, a report was released that specifies how the funds should be spent. At the directorate level, the bill appropriates $7.3 billion for SMD (vs $7.8 billion in FY23) and $143 million for STEM Engagement (flat with FY23).

Most of the major missions received the requested amount within SMD. The Near-Earth Surveyor is set to receive the requested $210 million to support its mission to detect and track near-Earth objects. Astrophysics will receive $1.5 billion, $34 million over FY23. This includes $98 million for the Hubble Space Telescope program, $407 million for the Roman Space Telescope’s construction and development, and $259 million for the Astrophysics Explorer program. $30 million has been allotted for the Cosmic Origins Strategic Research and Technology project. This includes the GOMAP program to support the design and development of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, a key recommendation from Astro2020.*

The PBR included several cost-cutting measures due to expected overruns of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, including shuttering the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) mission from the Heliophysics division. The Senate report admonishes NASA for this decision and restores $35 million in funding for GDC, stating: “The Committee is disappointed by NASA's proposal to delay the GDC mission… because of budgetary pressures outside the Heliophysics Division. The ability to achieve the science goals of the decadal survey should not be contingent upon the performance of any project of the Planetary Science Division.”  

Within planetary, most of the major missions received funds requested in the PBR, with the exception of MSR. The report notes: “...the Committee is alarmed that despite Congress providing the full request for this mission in prior years for a total of $1,739,000,000, the expected launch schedule continues to slip and the increasing fiscal and human resources devoted to MSR is causing NASA to delay other high priority missions across the Science Mission Directorate [SMD]. The Committee has significant concerns about the technical challenges facing MSR and potential further impacts on confirmed missions, even before MSR has completed preliminary design review.” 

The bill appropriates $300 million for MSR, well below the requested $949 million. In addition, the report highlights that the project will be subject to cancellation if the upcoming independent review board determines its lifetime costs at greater than $5.3 billion. Soon after the report was published, Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) issued an amendment to allow NASA time to rescope the mission under the cost cap before the final cancellation decision is made. If MSR is canceled, the $300 million will be split as: $235 million towards the Artemis program, $30 million to Dragonfly, $5 million for the design and development of a future flagship mission to Uranus, and $30 million to GDC. 

The Senate CJS bill appropriates $9.5 billion for the NSF, below the FY23 level of $9.9 billion. Of this, $7.6 billion is set aside for research and related activities to support the goals of the CHIPS and Science Act. The bill would also support STEM education at $1.2 billion, down from the $1.5 billion enacted in FY23. The report contains strong language in support of NSF funding for facilities and research, fully funding NOIRLab, NRAO, and NSO at the requested levels. The report also notes that as major facilities shift from construction to operations and maintenance, the NSF should ensure that those costs do not come at the expense of research activities by using the Facility Operation Transition program. The report mandates the NSF submit a 5-year operations and maintenance budget outlook for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory for the FY25 budget request, with the expectation that a reasonable funding request will be met.  

To meet the recommendations of the Astro2020 Decadal, the report also sets aside at least $30 million for the development of next-generation astronomy facilities, such as the ELTs and the NgVLA. A later amendment by Sen. Schatz (D-HI) clarifies that Congress expects NSF to submit a funding request for FY25 that includes enough funding to construct the decadal recommended projects as quickly as possible. For the Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction account (MREFC) the report appropriates $187 million (flat with FY23), which supports the construction of ongoing projects such as the Rubin Observatory and the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider Upgrade. 

The House CJS Bill 

On Friday, July 14th, the House voted on its own CJS bill in their subcommittee. While no report has been released to detail specific funding considerations, the bill appropriates $25.4 billion for NASA, with $7.4 billion set aside for SMD and $90 million for STEM Engagement. NSF would be funded at $9.6 billion, with $254 million set aside for MREFC. While the House bill funds NASA and NSF at higher levels than the Senate bill, it would cut NSF STEM Education significantly, from $1.5 billion enacted in FY23 to $1 billion in the bill.  

The bill also contains text prohibiting agencies from using any of the appropriated dollars towards: 

  • Offices and programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion related activities,
  • Hiring practices that take a person’s race, nationality, sex, or religion into consideration (affirmative action practices),
  • Discrimination against individuals who believe that the sex of a person assigned at birth cannot be changed,
  • Gender-affirming surgical procedures,
  • Discrimination against individuals who hold the religious or moral belief that marriage can only be a union of one man and one woman,
  • Classification of any form of communication as misinformation or partnering with private entities to censor misinformation,
  • Implementation of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Memorandum, "Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research,"
  • Federal employee union activities.

What’s Next 

Both the House and Senate will need to pass a unified bill by September 30th, or they can pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government at FY23 levels until the new year. If nothing is passed by the end of September, we would enter a government shutdown until a deal is reached. If we enter the CR but don’t reach a final deal by December 31st, then we would enter the new year with a CR at 99% of the FY23 funding levels. For now, the Senate bill will be headed for debate and a vote by the full Senate, while the House bill will need to make it through the full Appropriations Committee before heading to the floor.  

Supplemental funding deals are also possible. During the debt negations, a $23 billion side deal was reached to provide emergency funding for agencies beyond the cap, including $2.5 billion for CJS agencies. Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee has reached a deal for emergency funding worth $14 billion. This deal includes $350 million towards CJS agencies, although it isn’t clear yet where that money from either deal would fall within the portfolio. Additional emergency funding deals designed to address disaster relief and competition with China may also contain supplemental funding for NASA and NSF. 

For now, we will continue our conversations with the congressional offices to not only sustain support for astronomy but to expand our horizons for the next generations of students and scientists. We will continue to support the AAS mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe as a diverse and inclusive astronomical community. And we will continue to keep our community informed and engaged at every level in these proceedings. If you haven’t already, contact your congressional representatives to let them know how important scientific funding and an accessible scientific community is to you.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post included incorrect information about the GOMAP allocation. We have updated this post.

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