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FY 2014 Appropriations Introduced: Fellow's First Omnibus

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 - 11:09

At around 8 pm last night, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers released the text of their joint appropriations bill for FY 2014, the fiscal year that began this past October. The bill was introduced in the House and sets spending levels for all parts of the government that fall into discretionary spending, leaving none on autopilot. This is significant in that it's the first time since 2011 we are seeing a full suite of appropriations, rather than leaving much of the government to simply continue at last year's levels. You might say to that, "Wow! That's really interesting," or "blah blah blah, get to the astronomical sciences." I can guess. Ok, here we go.

Sources and Caveats

All the numbers and policies described below come from two documents: the actual text of the omnibus bill and the "Joint Explanatory Statement," which is analagous to the reports that accompany most other bills (thus I'll call it the "report" from here on out). One interesting side note, this whole thing is being attached as an amendment to H.R. 3547 - "A bill to extend Government liability, subject to appropriation, for certain third-party claims arising from commercial space launches." I won't claim to fully understand this move, but from what I do understand, H.R. 3547 is simply a vehicle in the right phase of passage into law, and presumably uncontroversial enough in the two chambers to not inhibit passage. A breakdown of H.R. 3547 itself is here, from Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online.

Two grains of salt to take with this information. First, this is an introduced bill that must make its way through the House and Senate before being signed into law by the President. Depending on how this is done, that may include amendments that change things currently in the bill. Second, language in the report is direction from Congress that the agencies will take into account as they formulate their operating plans for FY 2014, which they have to submit by 30 days after appropriations are signed into law. This means, again, some of these things may not land where it seems they will based on currently available information.

The Data

The preliminary outcome here is quite positive for our disciplines. The table below demonstrates this by comparing the omnibus appropriations (fourth column) with (from left to right) the FY 2014 Presidential budget request, FY 2014 Senate and House bills from mid-2013 and the actual, post-sequester budget numbers from FY 2013. The request numbers come directly from the budget requests, which can be found on each agency's website; the Senate and House values from the bills and accompanying reports; and the "FY 2013 Actual (post-sequester)" numbers come from the operating plans posted by each agency late last year.

Agency Directorate Division FY 2014 Omnibus FY 2014 Request FY 2014 Senate FY 2014 House FY 2013 Actual1
SMD2 5,151.2 5,017.8 5,154.2 4,781.6 4,781.6
Earth Science 1,826.0 1,846.1 1,846.2 1,659.0 1,659.2
Planetary Science 1,345.0 1,217.5 1,317.6 1,315.0 1,271.5
Astrophysics 668.0 642.3 678.4 622.0 617.0
Heliophysics 654.0 642.3 678.4 601.0 606.3
James Webb 658.2 658.2 658.2 584.0 627.6
R&RA3 5,808.9 6,212.3 6,018.3 5,676.2 5,543.7
MREFC4 200.0 210.1 210.1 182.6 196.2
EHR5 846.5 880.3 880.3 825.0 833.3
Science 5,071.0 5,152.8 5,152.8 4,653.0 4,621.1
High Energy Physics (HEP) 797.5 776.5 806.6 772.5 748.3
2SMD = Science Mission Directorate
3R&RA = Research & Related Activities
4MREFC = Major Research Equipment & Facility Construction
5EHR = Education & Human Resources

These raw values (hopefully) demonstrate two things. First, there was a wide ($100s of millions) gulf between the House and Senate appropriations from earlier in 2013 for our disciplines. Second, the omnibus hits the high notes more than the low ones, especially for NASA Science. With the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 restoring about half of the funding cut by the sequester for FY 2014, we were hoping to find ourselves at least halfway between the two. Both NASA and DOE Office of Science did better than that, though NSF R&RA appropriations came up about $40M short of the midway mark.

While most of the actual bill text does not get below the top line budget numbers, there are specific funding levels for certain projects and budget-related policy directions in the report. While not much in that language touches on astronomy-related issues at NSF or DOE, there is quite a bit of specific direction for NASA. I encourage you to take a look at the reports yourself, but here are some highlights for issues we follow very closely.

Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Consolidation within NASA

In this omnibus, the appropriators direct NASA to maintain funding for EPO within SMD, but to also "consider consolidating EPO funding within each SMD division and allocating funds to individual activities based on an assessment of division-wide priorities and program effectiveness" for FY 2014 and beyond. During this period of uncertainty under the continuing resolution, mission-based EPO programs have been working to continue activities despite even more constrained budgets due to the sequester. The sequester-relief and Congressional direction on EPO activities in this omnibus should hopefully provide a respite, at least for this fiscal year, from the current threat of consolidation.

The Administration's proposed government-wide STEM Education re-organization proposal, which would have moved all STEM Education programs into three agencies, is rejected in the omnibus report, as has already been detailed by (again) Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online. The report directs the Administration to develop any new proposals for Congressional consideration through a "more inclusive process." 

Plutonium-238 Production

Plutonium-238 (Pu-238) provides the radioactive fuel for outer solar system missions where sunlight does not provide sufficient power (as for e.g., Curiosity on Mars, Voyagers, etc.). Unfortunately, we stopped producing Pu-238 domestically decades ago and had been buying it from Russia until their supply dried up as well. Recent restart activities have shown that the Department of Energy is capable of producing Pu-238, at least in small quantities, but they need to also restart the full cycle of production, storage and integration into spacecraft (more details on this in a later post). However, with the House and Senate FY2014 appropriations reports from last year in conflict, the prospect for Pu-238 production funding remained cloudy. This omnibus would clear up this issue, providing "$146M for Technology, including up to the requested level [$65M] for Plutonium-238 production" within the Planetary Science Division. 

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb received its full request for FY 2014 and remains under an $8B cost cap for the telescope's development, as it has since its rebaselining. As we've discussed on the blog previously, the project maintains significant cost and schedule reserves that have program managers confident about their ability to meet an October 2018 launch date and the Congressionally-mandated cost cap.  

Discovery-Class Missions

The report directs NASA to use $285M of the Planetary Science Division funds for the Discovery program, directing them to use that money for "extended operations for the Messenger program and to increase the tempo by which Announcements of Opportunity (AOs) are released and missions are selected from those AOs." They further direct that a new Discovery AO be initiated no later than May 1, 2014 with final selection by September 2015.

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

The $27.5M difference between the earlier House and Senate appropriations bills for the NSF MREFC line "just so happened" to correspond to the start of LSST construction. I say "just so happened" because there was no explicit language in the House report forbidding the start of LSST construction. For this omnibus, appropriators have now said that NSF may use any unobligated MREFC balance for LSST once it meets its other ongoing construction projects' needs and may request the ability to transfer more money within the agency for LSST if needed. 

Other Decadal Priorities

In the Astrophysics and Heliophysics divisions, appropriators defer to direction from the Senate last year. In Astrophysics, these include $98.3M for Hubble operations, $32.9M for the Balloon Project, and $56M for preliminary work on "a science mission that meets the exoplanet and dark energy science objectives of WFIRST," in correspondence with the findings from NASA's report on Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets from May 2013. For Heliophysics, the report directs NASA to fully fund the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission at $120.9M, the Solar Probe Plus mission at $104.8M (with a targeted 2018 launch), and the Heliophysics Explorers at $95.2M. 

Where do we go from here?

The House is set to begin consideration of the omnibus today, with the Senate to follow shortly. We'll be sure to update you as necessary as the omnibus works its way through Congress to the White House. 

Late Update (4 Feb 2014): The President signed this bill into law on 17 January 2014. Next, agencies will submit operating plans detailing exactly how they plan to implement the bill and accompanying report directions in FY 2014. These are due to Congress by 16 February 2014, after which they will go through revisions as necessary. Operating plans are not always immediately available to the general public, but we will provide updates if/when they become available!

Joshua H. Shiode
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
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