The Congressional Budget Process Drama Continues — Countdown to April 28

As promised in my previous post, we now delve in to see what is going on right now with the federal budget process and in particular with funding for research in basic science. That previous post gives a broader view of how this annual process usually unfolds, or is supposed to unfold each year.

During inauguration years, we expect the budget process to be slower than during non-inauguration years, and this year is no exception. The federal government is currently running on a Continuing Budget Resolution (CR) (H.R. 2028). This bill provides continuing appropriations for most federal agencies through April 28, 2017; it prevents a partial government shutdown that would otherwise occur, because eleven of the twelve FY2017 regular appropriations bills that fund the federal government have not yet been enacted. This CR provides for the continuation of appropriations at the levels of, and under the terms and conditions of, the FY 2016 appropriations Acts.

Of the twelve annual regular appropriations bills, Congress has passed only one – the defense spending bill. Congress is currently working on the remaining eleven bills, but if these are not passed by April 28, another CR must be passed to avoid government shutdown. The Appropriations Subcommittee with jurisdiction over National Science Foundation (NSF) appropriations is the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS, House and Senate). Both of these subcommittees passed their respective bills last year, but the two are at odds and will have to be reconciled.

The top line funding levels from the President’s Budget for FY 2018 were released on March 16 in the so-called “skinny budget” titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” [When you read “skinny”, think “skeletal” not “lean”.] While this document represents the administration’s priorities and serves as a starting point for the appropriations process, it is Congress that passes the budget. Indeed, Congress fiercely defends its prerogative to make appropriations.

The President’s full budget is expected in early May. It is not clear what will happen, but the image that emerges is that this blueprint seeks to substantially scale back federal investments in science and technology research and development. The figure below (shown by permission from the AAAS) shows these cuts. And, yes, there is proposed a total elimination of the ARPA-E program; ARPA-E advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies.

The President’s blueprint does not include funding information for NSF. The AMS – together with 285 other organizations – sent a letter to House and Senate leadership and Appropriation Chairs and Subcommittee chairs in both chambers requesting NSF be funded at $8 billion for FY 2018. This amount represents a 4% increase, adjusted for inflation, over FY 2016 enacted levels. Some senators have picked up this request, and are urging their colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee to support this substantial increase in funding for the NSF.

As one might expect, most Democrats are criticizing the President’s budget request. And, some Republicans are praising it, while others are criticizing it. As we make the case for increased and sustained investment in research and development (R&D), we often argue that this is necessary for the United States to stay competitive in some sense. In this context, you might note that the U.S. has been slipping in rank when our R&D investment is considered as a percentage of our GDP. The most recent data analyzed shows that over the past 5-10 years, our investment has been between 2.7 and 2.8%. Israel and South Korea are making the largest investments, with over 4% of their GDP going to R&D.

Investments in basic research improve our quality of life, strengthen our national security, and create jobs. It is easy to find (and I venture a guess that many of you are well-versed with) media arguing that cuts to science funding would put at risk our nation’s economic growth and position as a global scientific leader. The importance of such investment has been recognized as long as our country has existed. George Washington, in his First Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union (January 8, 1790), proclaimed that

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of publick happiness.”

Congress returns from its current two-week recess next week and then has four days (until April 28) to settle the FY 2017 budget. It will be a tall order to pass the remaining appropriations bills in such a short window. Anything is possible. All remaining appropriations bills could pass separately (very unlikely), or an omnibus funding bill – one that puts funding for the entire government in one bill rather than twelve – could pass (less unlikely but major obstacles exist). It seems quite likely that we will see another CR making it possible for the federal government to stay open until the fiscal year ends on September 30.

If the government does shut down, April 29 will be Day 1 of the shutdown and President Trump’s 100th day in office.

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and loves to talk about redistricting. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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