This article is published in the May 2020 issue.

What’s Happening with the Federal Budget, Particularly with the Research Agencies, During the Pandemic?

It should come as no surprise that the normal operations of official Washington have been heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Current events have derailed almost every aspect of the usual budget process. Adding to that, the situation remains very fluid as to when legislation, or any official business, will be acted upon by Congress; case in point, at the beginning of April, the House was telling its members they wouldn’t reconvene until the beginning of May, at the earliest (that obviously didn’t happen, as the House reconvened to pass H.R.266, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, on April 23rd).

There are some official actions that are happening. In terms of emergency funding, the CARES Act, passed at the end of March, has about $180 million dollars in emergency research funding for NIH, NSF, DOE Office of Science, and NIST. As well, there was about another $86 million for three agencies (NASA, NOAA, and NIST) to support “continuity of operations;” i.e., any operations that were disrupted by the pandemic, such as rescheduling a space science mission at NASA. Additionally, there was support for higher education, in the form of about $14 billion; however, that isn’t set aside for research and by all reports is being used by colleges and universities for administrative purposes (meaning, keeping the lights on). All that funding was directly related to responding to the pandemic. If you would like a more detailed breakdown, Science Magazine has a good one (Science even has a good collection of science news and other articles related to the pandemic that they are offering for free).

While there was a follow-up to the CARES Act (the before mentioned HR.266), it only contained money for NIH and it is directly tied to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, on May 15th, the House passed H.R.6800, the Heroes Act, which called for more than $3 trillion in emergency funding for the pandemic crisis. In that bill, NSF would receive $125 million to, “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus,” and NIH would received $4.745 billion to, “expand COVID-19-related research on the NIH campus and at academic institutions across the country and to support the shutdown and startup costs of biomedical research laboratories nationwide.” However, that bill as currently written is unlikely to be considered by the Senate, and has even drawn a veto threat from the President. There is likely to be more emergency legislation in the future, but any timing is uncertain; research funding, or even funding to restart the country’s research enterprise, could be included in any new legislation, but that is not a given.

With regard to the regular Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) appropriations, things are just as unclear. We had heard that the House Appropriations Committee had planned to act on its FY21 bills in May. Unfortunately, that has not happened, as the House has been sidetracked by other emergency legislation. They are likely to get back to their individual FY21 bills later in the summer, though exactly when is unclear.  Its Senate counterpart has been less vocal about their plans, but the expectation is they will take action late in the summer, in the late-June-July timeframe. However, all this is still very tentative; Congress has not fully settled on how it will physically operate while remaining in compliance with social distancing guidelines (for example, the House only settled on remote voting rules in the middle of May). This, and other changes, could become the norm for the duration of this emergency, which only adds to the uncertainty on when legislative actions will be taken.

Despite being several months into pandemic, Washington is still feeling it’s way through how to operate. That means certainty about what will happen, and when, is in high demand but low supply. We are still monitoring what’s happening, even while safely at home; please check back for more updates.

What’s Happening with the Federal Budget, Particularly with the Research Agencies, During the Pandemic?