19 September 2023

Impact of a Shutdown on Astronomy

Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)

On 1 October a new fiscal year begins for the US government, at which point Congress must pass the budget appropriations to fund the government. With just a few weeks until that deadline, the prospect of a government shutdown or a temporary funding bill known as a continuing resolution (CR) seems likely. How did we get here, what would happen under a shutdown or a CR, and what might happen next? 


Every year the 12 appropriations committees in each body of Congress write up bills that set the funding and priorities of the various federal agencies under their jurisdiction. For agencies such as NASA and the NSF, the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) committees will set the funding levels. As both the House and the Senate CJS committees may have different priorities, they will write up separate versions of the bills. Any differences in the bills must be resolved for them to pass through both bodies. Often, Congress will group together several appropriations bills in an “Omnibus”, or a “mini-bus,” for a grouping of just a few bills. This year Congress has agreed on a deal that places a cap on the overall funding levels for the federal government as well as several restrictions on the funding process. This includes passing all 12 appropriations bills separately rather than bunching some or all of the bills together, a feat that has not been accomplished since 1997

This year, the Senate has passed all 12 of their bills through the committee level and has passed supplemental funding bills that exceed the cap. Meanwhile, the House only passed 10 of their bills through the committee level; the CJS and Labor-HHS-Education bills remain in committee and do not have a scheduled committee vote as of now. Many of the House bills advocate for funding well below the cap and contain several clauses that are unlikely to attract the bipartisan and bicameral support needed for passage. If Congress is unable to pass funding legislation through both the House and Senate by 30 September, then the federal government will enter a shutdown. The current status of the appropriations bills can be seen here, and read our take on the House and Senate CJS appropriations bills here

Government Shutdown 

A shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass any appropriations bills, at which point federal agencies must cease their non-essential functions until funding is restored. If Congress is able to pass some of the appropriations bills, then a partial shutdown may occur. Under a shutdown, nonessential federal employees may not report to work. Essential employees may continue to work but will not receive pay until funding is restored. All employees will be paid retroactively once funding is restored, regardless of their status. Agencies work with the White House Office of Management and Budget to create contingency plans in the event of a shutdown, detailing which employees and services are deemed essential. For example, the NASA contingency plan recognizes just two essential activities: the general operations of the International Space Station and the operations necessary to protect the safety of NASA satellites and facilities. The NSF contingency plan, last updated in September 2022, similarly limits activities to protecting life and property at NSF facilities. NASA and NSF operations run by awardees or contractors, such as the observatories run by STScI, NOIRLab, NRAO, and NSO can continue operations while funding remains from their prior authorizations. All other activities by the agencies, such as scientific research and administrative work, must cease. A shutdown would threaten to pause upcoming observations on many telescopes, would prevent federal employees from participating in conferences (such as the upcoming DPS-EPSC 2023 meeting) and in scientific collaborations, and would delay any ongoing reviews or upcoming calls of grants and proposals. This would have severe consequences for many in the community, particularly those relying on time-sensitive observations, reliable access to archival data, and for early-career astronomers who may not have the savings to sit through a long shutdown. 

Continuing Resolution 

One avenue to avoid a shutdown is to pass a CR. This would allow the government to continue operating at the previous fiscal year levels for a fixed set of time, from a single day to several months. This is often used as a temporary funding measure while Congress hammers out the details for the final spending bills. As part of the federal spending deal, any CR that extends beyond 1 January 2024 would limit the FY24 and FY25 funding levels to be 1% below the FY23 levels. However, a CR would limit the activities of federal agencies to what was appropriated in the last budget cycle, it would not allow for funds to be used for new activities, such as the development of new facilities or new grants programs. 

What’s Next? 

The House and Senate must jointly pass funding legislation by 30 September to avoid a shutdown. If they are not able to pass the bills in time, then we will enter a partial or total shutdown. Congress may also pass a partial or total CR, keeping funding at FY23 levels temporarily. Such a CR could last as little as a single day or may last till the end of the calendar year. Any CR that continues into 2024 would automatically set funding levels to 1% below FY23. This would technically be higher than the spending cap in the debt deal, which would require a 22% cut to non-defense discretionary spending from FY23 levels.  
What Can We Do? 

The best course of action that you can take is to contact your congressional representatives and voice your concerns. Let them know how a shutdown would affect you and urge them to fund the federal government at the level needed to continue our leadership in the space sciences.  

Correction: A previous version stated that all NASA and NSF funded observatories would pause operations under a shutdown; observatories run by contractors or awardees may continue operations until funding from their prior authorization runs out.