This article is published in the November 2010 issue.

Congress Adjourns Without Finishing Work on Funding, Science Program

As predicted by many in the science advocacy community, Congress adjourned well in advance of the November mid-term elections without having finished work on any spending bills or a reauthorization of federal research and education programs. Without completed 2011 appropriations, federal agencies began the 2011 fiscal year with spending capped at the 2010 fiscal year levels—a situation that will remain until Congress returns to finish the 2011 appropriations process. Complicating matters is the likelihood of significant change in the composition and, perhaps, leadership of Congress, making it difficult to predict exactly how and when Congress will complete appropriations.

The House adjourned on September 29—effectively placing appropriations on hold—after having passed a measure known as a Continuing Resolution, a stop-gap appropriation intended to keep federal agencies funded after the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. The resolution authorizes federal agencies to continue to spend money at the rate approved last year as part of the FY 10 appropriation process. In the case of federal science agencies, this means that large increases in funding for long-term research requested by the President for

FY 11 and approved by several congressional committees—though not yet passed as law—will not take effect until Congress returns to finish its work. It also means that new program starts requested in the President’s budget will not be allowed to proceed and, in many cases, new personnel may not be hired.

The continuing resolution is set to expire on December 3, 2010, meaning Congress will have to reconvene before then to either finish its work or pass another stopgap resolution. With the leadership of the House in question after the mid-term elections, and the Senate also in play, it is not clear how Congress will proceed when the House returns on November 15. Growing sentiment among congressional staff seems to indicate that if the House leadership changes as a result of the November elections, Congress will convene in lame-duck session in November and simply pass a continuing resolution that carries into the new Congress in January, effectively punting the problem of finishing up the FY 11 appropriations to the new leadership.

From the viewpoint of the science advocacy community, this option is probably the least desirable. Not only would this further delay new starts and hiring at federal science agencies and possibly reduce the total funding for the agency for the year (because Congress could “pro-rate” the spending for the remaining months left in the fiscal year), but it would also give control over the final numbers in the appropriations bills to the Republican leadership, which has proposed a total freeze in discretionary spending. Increases requested and approved for federal science agencies—including a 7 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, a 3 percent increase for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and a 13 percent increase for core research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology—could be imperiled by such an across-the-board discretionary spending freeze.

This approach is not universally embraced by Republicans, however. Most recently, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TX) has proposed that should such a freeze go into effect, funding for long-term research should be exempt. “We spend $3.8 trillion this year, and we need to spend less,” he told AAAS’ ScienceInsider in October. “But what we need to do is set priorities. And one of our highest priorities should be research and development, including using the talent at our great research universities to help create jobs.”

The current Democratic leadership could also decide to take up the unfinished bills during the lame-duck session, regardless of the outcome of the election. What is not clear in this situation is how much pressure the leadership will feel to trim the spending rates already approved by the appropriations committees. Federal science agencies, particularly NSF and NIST, are in the best position to retain increases in this scenario, though it is by no means assured.

In any scenario, Congress is likely to pass the outstanding appropriations bills as one large omnibus bill. With the exception of the Defense Appropriations bill, on which the leadership would like a separate vote, the remaining bills would be bundled into one vehicle with one up or down vote. A must-pass omnibus bill becomes a giant Christmas tree for Members of Congress looking to find a place for their own unenacted legislative priorities, so it is almost impossible to know what programs and proposals will ultimately appear in the final bill. Of particular interest to the computing community will be whether any of the myriad cyber security proposals floating around in legislation finds its way into the omnibus.

Also of interest to the computing community, but not likely to appear in the omnibus, is the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, a bill designed to reauthorize federal spending on research and education programs. The COMPETES Reauthorization of 2010 has had a checkered route through Congress so far and, at the recess, has not yet been conferenced by the House and Senate (who have each passed markedly different versions). Unfortunately for those with an interest in seeing Congress take both a symbolic and substantive step in reaffirming its support for the federal role in sponsoring long-term research, it is unlikely that the reauthorization of COMPETES will move forward during the lame-duck session. Democrats have announced a list of 20 bills they intend to move during the lame-duck and COMPETES is not among them.

The COMPETES reauthorization could, and likely will, be introduced in the new session of Congress. It may not look much like the current versions approved by the House and Senate, however. The COMPETES bill that passed in 2007 under Republican leadership focused much more exclusively on modest funding for NSF, NIST and DOE Office of Science, and on programs designed to improve the participation of U.S. students in STEM disciplines. The COMPETES reauthorization of 2010 was a bit more expansive, including the creation of a number of new programs designed to improve U.S. technology transfer capabilities and larger funding authorizations, about which many of the more fiscally conservative members of the Republicans and Democrats expressed concern.

For now, Members of Congress are back home in their states and districts, doing one last month of campaigning in advance of the election. What will happen when they return is an open question. We’ll have all the answers, as soon as we learn them, on CRA’s Computing Research Policy Blog.

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Congress Adjourns Without Finishing Work on Funding, Science Program