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It's September: Do You Know Where Your Federal Funding Is?

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 21:47

It must be September: Congress is scrambling to pass legislation to fund the federal government starting 1 October, and federal agencies have only recently been able to finalize their budgets for the year coming to a close on 30 September. As Congress attempts, once again, to restore a "regular order" budget process, I take a brief look at where budgets stand for the current fiscal year 2018 (FY18) and the upcoming FY19 (jump to FY19).

FY18: Finalizing the Details

Back in March, I declared, "Fiscal Year Finalized", which was alliterative, but not entirely accurate (or only accurate for certain definitions of "final"). Congress had indeed passed final FY2018 funding levels in March — nearly six months into the fiscal year — but Congressional appropriations language, for the most part, does not set detailed funding levels, rather only top- and mid-tier spending limits. Like every final appropriations bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 requires agencies to submit these detailed operating plans back to Congress for approval that they do indeed meet the letter and intent of the legislation, and explain any changes that needed to be made. Congress has to approve these operating plans, so the detailed spending, particularly down at the program/project level, cannot really be certain until that happens. For FY18, NASA and NSF didn't get that approval until they had just two months left in the fiscal year to actually act upon the approved spending levels.

Here, I will briefly review the developments in spending beyond what we knew what would be coming from the omnibus legislation as it relates to astronomical sciences funding. The numbers can be found in the table below, which also includes, for comparison, the spending levels for the previous couple of years as well as the FY18 requested levels, which ostensibly represent what the agency and administration determined was needed to execute a given project/program.

Congressional appropriators are relatively hands-off with NSF, setting only the top line for the agency's Research and Research Activities (R&RA) account, allowing the agency, in collaboration with the administration, set directorate-level funding. As such, final word on how a change to the top line will trickle down through the directorates, then divisions, and then programs/projects can take time. This is why the NSF news of the last month has been a flurry of announcements of awards; many programs had to wait until the operating plan was approved to act.

After a decade of largely flat budgets, NSF received a 4.9% boost of about $300 million in FY18. How did NSF spend that increase? Well, it turns out, a lot of it went to the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) directorate, and a lot of the MPS share went to the Astronomical Sciences (AST) division. That boost to AST will help mitigate the short-term pressure of the persistent and near-critical challenge of rising operations and maintenance costs — though NSF is working toward long-term solutions. The FY18 spending levels for MPS were announced in Director Anne Kinney's update to the MPS Advisory Committee in August. We do not yet have numbers for the Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences Division, in the Geosciences Directorate, which houses some solar physics programs.

In contrast, Congressional appropriators are generally more prescriptive with NASA, particularly within the Astrophysics and Planetary Science divisions within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), so we knew many of the spending levels already. For NASA Planetary Science, each program increased in funding except for Discovery, which saw the funding for some of its missions shifted into next year (something that can be easier for a mission early in development, like Psyche, or having recently launched, like InSight) to help free up funds to keep Mars2020 on track to meet its narrow launch window. In Astrophysics, the Explorers line was a bit lower than requested because of the reductions in the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) annual budget enabled by a launch delay that spreads its budget out over a longer period of time. See the full, detailed operating plan here on the NASA website.


FY 2016 Operating Plan FY 2017 Operating Plan FY 2018 Request FY 2018 Operating Plan
NASA $19,285 $19,653.3 $19,092.2 $20,736.1
Science Mission Directorate $5,589.4 $5,765 $5,711.8 $6,211.5
Planetary Science $1,628 $1,827.5 $1,929.5 $2,217.9
Research $274 $290.1 $291.5 $315.6
Discovery $189 $213.6 $306.1 $280.3
New Frontiers $194 $134 $82.1 $88.1
Mars Exploration Program $513 $647 $584.7 $678
Outer Planets and Ocean Worlds $261 $359.5 $457.9 $641.2
Technology $197 $183.3 $207.2 $214.7
Astrophysics and JWST $1,382.4 $1,352.3 $1,350.5 $1,384.1
Research $192.8 $190.01 $204.4 $203.1
Cosmic Origins (Including JWST) $815.2 $779.4 $725.3 $747
Physics of the Cosmos $125.3 $106.2 $99.9 $115.8
Exoplanet Exploration (Including WFIRST) $141.2 $152.6 $176 $200.8
Astrophysics Explorers $107.6 $124.1 $144.7 $117.4
Heliophysics $650 $678 $677.8 $672.8
Heliophysics Research $160 $180.8 $200.2 $206.3
Living with a Star (Including Parker) $337.1 $368.4 $381 $376.1
Solar Terrestrial Probes $49.5 $38.8 $37.8 $45.2
Heliophysics Explorers $100.6 $86.7 $58.9 $60.9
National Science Foundation $7,463.5 $7,472.2 $6,652.9 $7767.4
R&RA $6,033.6 $6,033.6 $5,361.6 $6,334
MPS $1,349 $1,362.4 $1,219 $1,497.9
AST $247 $252.1 $221 $307.26

FY19: Minibuses for Some, Stopgap Spending Measures for Others

The United States has been operating under the same federal budget process for more than 40 years, but it has only managed to come to an agreement on all federal spending bills on time — i.e., by 30 September — four times, and the last time was for FY98 (there are various bipartisan efforts to change this status quo, including within Congress).

For FY19, rather than attempting to pass all 12 appropriations bills separately or collect them all into a single "omnibus" bill that the president said last March he would never sign again, Congress has opted to tackle just a few bills at a time, bundling two or three as a "minibus" that must still be negotiated by a bipartisan, bicameral conference committee and passed once more, as a package, through both the House and the Senate before heading to the president's desk to be signed into law. The minibus approach has allowed for some progress, but the majority of the federal agencies will have to continue operating under the FY18 budgets with a continuing resolution (CR).

One minibus has passed through Congress and is simply awaiting presidential signature. This first bundle includes the Energy and Water, Military Construction-Veteran's Affairs, and Legislative Branch spending bills; for AAS members, it means that the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science (SC) has a full-year appropriation. The final spending measure, for the second year in a row, gives a strong boost to the SC that rejects the administration's proposed cuts. Though the final SC numbers ended up slightly lower than either the House or Senate versions, it still gives the SC a 5.2% bump over FY18, which combines to mean a 21% increase in the DOE SC budget over the last two years.

The AAS-member-relevant budget lines detailed in the conference report (legislation) and the accompanying joint explanatory statement are given in the table below. While most astrophysics funded by the SC is in the Cosmic Frontier program of the High Energy Physics (HEP) division, there is also some astrophysics supported in the Nuclear Physics and Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) divisions. The R&D Budget and Policy team at the American Association for the Advancement of Science have more on the broader implications for science in the first minibus.


FY 2016 Operating Plan FY 2017 Operating Plan FY 2018 Omnibus FY 2019 Minibus
DOE $29,603 $30,786 $34,520 $35,685
Office of Science $5,347 $5,391 $6,259 $6,585
HEP $795 $825 $908 $980
Research $728.9 $731.5 $767.6 $800
Construction $66.1 $95.5 $140.4 $180
ASCR $647 $647 $810 $935.50
Nuclear Physics $617 $622 $684 $690

The conference report for the second minibus, comprising the Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bills, has been released, setting it up for final passage on the House and Senate floors next week (the House is in recess this week). As part of the second minibus negotiations, House and Senate appropriators came to an agreement to fund the rest of the government — including NSF and NASA, which are funded by the Commerce, Justice, and Science bill — with a stopgap CR that would expire 7 December. Further developments in appropriations are thus unlikely until after the election, when Congress will have to either finish the process or pass another CR to avoid a shutdown.

If you want to get more updates on the broader appropriations landscape (or just really increase the nerdiness of your podcast feed), this Bahcall Fellow recommends the CQ Budget podcast, posted weekly.

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