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House Responds to President's FY 2019 Budget Request

Tuesday, May 22, 2018 - 06:30

The House Appropriations Committee has kicked off the fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations season, holding "markups" — consideration of amendments, debate, and votes — so far on five of the12 subcommittee bills that set federal spending levels for FY 2019, which starts 1 October 2018. Last week the committee approved spending bills for the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS, governing NASA and the National Science Foundation) and Energy and Water (E&W, governing the Department of Energy) subcommittees' legislation.

The public process for determining FY 2019 spending truly began on 12 February 2018, when the White House released the administration's FY 2019 budget request, "An American Budget." The "Major Savings and Reforms" document identifies many of the major cuts in the budget proposal. The president's budget request is always the result of back-and-forth negotiations between individual agencies and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It marks only the first step in the annual appropriations process and is hardly binding; the "power of the purse" ultimately lies with Congress. Members of Congress are never shy about reminding any given president that they are free to disregard the priorities and spending levels in the request. At a minimum, though, any details of the request not superseded by explicit congressional language would stand, and it represents how the administration — and thus federal agencies — intend to spend money allocated by Congress. Many broad looks at the administration's priorities for federal science funding have been published, including these:

In light of the congressional budget deal passed just before the budget release, the OMB director sent an addendum to the budget proposal to Congress, identifying how the administration wished to distribute (some of) the additional discretionary budgetary authority. The letter revealed the administration's original plan to propose steep cuts at some science agencies; some of those proposed cuts were rolled back in light of the spending deal, but the addendum advised Congress against using the full increase to its nondefense discretionary budget authority, urging fiscal restraint. Congress chose to ignore that advice in its FY 2018 omnibus bill, using the full discretionary spending authority to boost spending across the federal government, including at the science agencies.

Under "regular order," Congress must now write, debate, and pass legislation to fund the federal government before FY 2019 begins on 1 October. As is typical, especially in an election year, the House has moved more rapidly than the Senate, hoping to get through its versions of the spending bills quickly so that members may go home to their districts for campaign efforts. House committees and subcommittees held budget hearings in March and April, during which agency heads/department secretaries defended their FY19 budget requests to appropriators (and sometimes authorizers) and answered questions about the proposals. Appropriations markups then began this month.

Here, I summarize the administration's request and the House appropriations proposals for NASA, NSF, and the DOE Office of Science (SC), the three entities that fund most of the research grants, facilities, and programs with which AAS members engage. The above plot shows the request and House proposed increases and cuts, and below I get into the details. If an agency or program in which you are interested is not included here or in the additional summaries below, then please get in touch. We also include links and pull some direct quotations from the draft bill language and the accompanying committee reports. Committee reports are not legal statute, but they do offer direction and expansion upon the intent of appropriators when they set top-line spending levels or include broad policy measures in the statutory language. Thus, it is the practice of most federal entities to follow the report recommendations as if they were indeed legally binding.

NASA

Detailed administration budget narrative
House CJS bill
House CJS report

Office of Education

The administration again proposed canceling NASA's Office of Education, providing no funding for Space Grant, Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), or Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). "Moving forward, it is expected that a new focused functional office funded by Agency Management and Operations will oversee agency-wide coordination of STEM engagement efforts." Congress rejected this cancellation in FY 2018, and the House has again rejected it for FY 2019, though it would have the spending reduced by 10%.

Science

I highlight the division-specific provisions from the request and the House bill below, but the committee also made come broader critique on the agency's long-term budget planning, particularly in science (emphasis mine):

The request includes significant new funding to support NASA’s proposed Moon program. However, notional outyear budgets to implement this new initiative and the wide range of other ongoing and anticipated future decadal missions are unrealistic. The Committee is supportive of efforts focused on the Moon as well as current robotic missions to Europa and Mars; moving forward with a refocused WFIRST; and building a hypersonic research aircraft. These and many other NASA missions and programs inspire the nation and spur the next generation of scientists and explorers. The Committee directs NASA to submit realistic outyear budgets that show the level of investment required in future years to accomplish the variety of NASA missions and refrain from submitting budgets that are not executable in a timely fashion, as they serve only to hinder effective long-term planning which in turn results in higher overall program costs.

Planetary Science

The administration proposed an increase to Planetary Science to maintain the current portfolio (Mars Exploration, New Frontiers, Discovery, etc.); increase Research and Analysis (R&A) and Planetary Defense (now its own separate line, and primarily an increase for the Double Asteroid Redirect Test); and to introduce a new "Lunar Future" line for robotic (i.e., lander) exploration of the lunar surface as part of the new initiative to put astronauts back on the Moon. The House CJS appropriation would increase Planetary Science funding by 24% over FY 2018 (and the similar FY 2019 request level).

Within that increased Planetary Science appropriation, the House CJS report supports the increased investments proposed in the request in planetary defense and lunar exploration. When considering the new lunar program, the House directs that the new Lunar Future initiative...

...follow the lunar science priorities established by decadal surveys and the [2007] National Research Council’s Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon and collect data to address the strategic knowledge gaps important for human exploration of the Moon. The Committee anticipates additional reports from the Academies regarding NASA’s plans for lunar science and exploration.

The House also recommends a $10 million increase for the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), currently in an extended Phase A mission study. Appropriators further state that, in order to meet the 2005 congressional mandate to find 90% of all 140-meter-or-larger potentially hazardous asteroids, "NASA's activities towards meeting these requirements, while impressive, could be further enhanced by an in-space telescope that can detect objects approaching our planet from the direction of the Sun."

In the request, Europa Clipper continues to be proposed for a mid-2020s launch, with no support for a lander, and the House bill continues to mandate a 2022 launch of Europa Clipper on the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) and a Europa Lander mission in 2024. Even though the request explicitly did not support a Europa Lander mission, given the consistent congressional direction to complete one, NASA is now moving forward with development. Last week, the agency released the final solicitation for lander instrument proposals; step 1 proposals are due 22 June 2018. NASA also announced this week that a 2022 launch of Clipper would have to be on the less-powerful Block 1 version of SLS, as the more-powerful Block 1B will not be ready until 2024 at the earliest. The House CJS report also recommended $3 million for NASA to work with NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research to "examine potential parallels between possible systems that might support life in outer space to ones known to exist on Earth."

For Mars, House appropriators continue to push for the Mars Helicopter technology demonstration as part of the Mars 2020 mission, recommending no less than $10 million, though it was not included in the request. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced earlier this month that NASA had made the decision to indeed include the helicopter on Mars 2020. Appropriators used the CJS report to further call out specific elements of the NASA portfolio it supports, including Planetary Protection, New Frontiers (including OSIRIS-REx), Discovery, Juno ("The Committee is aware that the original Juno flight plan has been modified and that additional operational funds may be required in future years."), Mars Exploration (requesting quarterly briefings on "all aspects" of the Mars program), technology, and impact craters.

Astrophysics

Citing different, higher agency priorities, the administration proposed a nearly 15% cut to Astrophysics and the cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), with a new "probe-class" ($1 billion mission cost) line in its place at a lower funding level. House appropriators went with a smaller cut to Astrophysics (4%), and, while they did not accept cancellation of WFIRST, neither did they appropriate sufficient funding to continue the ramp up of development as the mission goes into Phase B of development. Instead, the House would have NASA spend only $150 million on WFIRST in FY 2019, far shy of the $350 million it needs to stay on schedule and within its $3.2 billion budget. From the report language (emphasis mine):

The recommendation includes $150,000,000 for WFIRST, which was included as the first priority in the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey. The Committee is concerned about the growing cost of the prime mission as noted by a recent independent examination. To reduce mission costs and ensure that overlap with James Webb Space Telescope is maximized, NASA should implement the most efficient development program for the telescope and its instruments. Further, to enhance the cost effectiveness of science operations, NASA shall leverage more extensively the experience acquired on Hubble, Spitzer, and WISE. The recommended amount shall include continued development of the chronograph [sic] as a technology demonstration mission. Further, within amounts provided for WFIRST, $20,000,000 is for continued development of the Starshade technology demonstration effort. The Committee understands that WFIRST is already "Starshade-ready" within the $3,200,000,000 cost cap. The Starshade, in tandem with WFIRST, will enable NASA to identify the nearest Earth-like planet around the nearest star, and thereby identify a target or multiple targets for the interstellar mission NASA has been developing.

NASA again proposed temporarily reducing the budgets for operating the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) within Cosmic Origins, because both missions have uncosted balances (i.e., reserves) built up from prior years. As in FY 2018, the House insists that NASA continue to spend $85.2 million on SOFIA operations (higher than the requested $74.6 million). The Senate usually applies similar treatment to HST, previously appropriating $98.3 million (higher than the requested $78.3 million). The CJS report has strong language — even stronger than in the FY 2018 omnibus report — instructing NASA not to include SOFIA in the upcoming Senior Review of operating missions. From the report:

SOFIA was first recommended in the 1991 Decadal Survey, The Decade of Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The New Worlds, New Horizons 2010 Decadal Survey noted that with SOFIA, "we have the opportunity to study fundamentals of chemistry under conditions we cannot create here on Earth." Following that, the New Worlds, New Horizons: A Midterm Assessment noted that, "...(SOFIA) reached full operational capacity in February 2014 and provides unique capabilities for mid-to-far infrared spectroscopy." Pursuant to 51 U.S.C. 30504, NASA conducts "triennial reviews" of "missions that exceed their planned missions’ lifetime." The Committee is concerned with NASA’s proposed inclusion of SOFIA in the 2019 Senior Review, given it began its prime mission in 2014 and has 15 years of prime mission lifetime remaining. Accordingly, the Committee directs NASA to only undertake a Senior Review of SOFIA at the time SOFIA completes its planned mission lifetime. For the purposes of this section, announcing, scheduling, or undertaking a Senior Review is deemed preparation for shutdown.

The Senior Review process usually includes all missions beyond their standard five-year prime mission phase. However, as stated in the 2014 NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report on SOFIA "with a planned operating life of 20 years and relatively high life-cycle operating costs of $1.9 billion, SOFIA is not a typical NASA program." The OIG recommended that NASA "establish a timeline for SOFIA to be evaluated within the Senior Review or a similar process during its primary operational phase."

The House would have JWST fully supported at the requested level (but stay tuned for developments after the new JWST Independent Review Board reports out in June). For the first time in 25 years, NASA would be directed to spend funds ($10 million) to work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), specifically technosignatures. The report directs NASA Astrophysics to "partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations, to the maximum extent practicable." Finally, the report reminds NASA that Congress is owed, within FY 2018, a report "that summarizes NASA's plans for maintaining U.S. leadership in obtaining astrophysical observations in the X-ray and gamma-ray wavelengths following the completion of the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope missions."

Heliophysics

The request proposed a very small increase for Heliophysics, while the House bill would leave the appropriation flat from FY 2018. NASA proposed nearly doubling the share of its Heliophysics budget for Research and Analysis (R&A) (to 20%, from 10%), as recommended in the Heliophysics Decadal Survey's Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, and Educate (DRIVE) Initiative. The Heliophysics Explorer program would not quite meet the decadal recommendation to accelerate and expand the Heliophysics Explorer Program to a cadence of one launch every 2-3 years; two Explorers are launching in FY 2018 (ICON and GOLD), but the last Heliophysics Explorer launched five years ago, and the next, according to the request, would not be launched until 2022. The House bill appropriates more than requested for the Magnetospheric Multiscale Satellites ($26 million, instead of the requested $17 million).

More information and analysis:

NSF

Detailed budget narrative
House CJS bill
House CJS report

Before the budget deal, the administration would have requested a 30% cut to NSF, or more than $2 billion. Instead, the administration proposed a flat — from FY 2017 — budget for NSF. Within a flat top line, the administration proposed redirection of some funding to the 10 Big Ideas, including “Windows on the Universe,” the multimessenger astrophysics effort. The proposed redirection of funds would disproportionately cut the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) directorate. Within the divisions, the proposed reductions (8.5% cut to AST, 5.5% to AGS), as is typical, would generally see facility operations take on an increasing share of their budgets over investigator grant funding. Operations costs rise with time and are harder to cut, while it is easier to “just” reduce the number of grants. The FY 2018 omnibus deal gave NSF a 3% boost, but the agency has not yet released its operating plan for FY 2018 outlining how that increase would be spent at the directorate levels (Congress, by recent tradition, does not appropriate directorate-level funding at NSF). The House has proposed a larger increase for the NSF top line in FY 2019 of 5.25%. In the report, appropriators explain the increase:

This significant investment…shows the Committee’s support of science, the academic community, and the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, astronomers, and engineers across the country. The Committee underscores the importance of basic research that both improves the lives of Americans and expands our understanding of the Earth, the depths of our oceans, our Solar System, the Universe, and oceans on other planets. NSF must redouble its important efforts thus far to ensure that this funding is invested wisely to improve our way of life and expand our knowledge base.

Perhaps most suprising in the House bill for NSF is the appropriation to the Major Research Equipment and Facilities (MREFC) account, which nearly triples the requested amount. The request maintained the budget profiles for construction activities for the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which are both ramping down as they near completion. House appropriators opted to front-load almost all of the remaining LSST construction budget for the next several years in FY 2019. There is no explanation for the increased appropriation in the CJS report, although CJS Subcommitttee Chairman Culberson (R-TX) told Science magazine that "the whole point of this is to ensure that these critical scientific instruments are brought online as quickly as possible," because "you can speed up completion of big engineering projects by front-loading the funding.... That helps you to lock in costs and speed up the overall construction timeline.” However, Steven Kahn, LSST director, told Science, “It never hurts to have more money in hand. But it won’t speed things up much, because we’re not cash-limited.”

More information and analysis:

DOE Office of Science

Detailed budget narrative
House E&W bill
House E& report

The administration's request for the DOE Office of Science (SC) proposed a flat SC budget that would reduce many areas of physical science research — by 6% for High Energy Physics (HEP) — in favor of increasing investment in high performance computing (HPC)/exascale and quantum information science. The House appropriation meets those requests, but also provides increases across the SC. For HEP, the House bill increases the overall budget by 11% ($97 million) over FY 2018, supporting completion of dark energy and dark matter experiments. The committee also "strongly urges the Department to maintain a balanced portfolio of small, medium, and large scale experiments, and to ensure adequate funding for research performed at universities and the national laboratories"

More information and analysis:

Additional Information

Ashlee N. Wilkins
John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
American Astronomical Society (AAS)
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