Federal Budget Update: Continuing Resolution, Sequestration, and the GSA Act

17 September 2012
AGU Science Policy Alert 12-36

House Passes Continuing Resolution for FY2013

The “Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2013”, H. J. Res. 117, passed in the House 13 September and is expected to be taken up by the Senate the week of 17 September.   This temporary measure provides the funding necessary to keep the government operating after 1 October, the start of FY2013, through March of 2013.  The House version maintains funding for DOE, DOI, NSF, NASA and nearly all other government departments and programs at a 0.612% increase over FY2012 levels.

Of particular interest to the geoscience community, the resolution includes a provision that would continue support for NOAA’s planned launch of the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite System, which will provide critical weather and natural hazard information.  DOE will receive an additional $100,000,000 beyond FY2012 levels for domestic uranium enrichment research and development.

Although the resolution notes that the upcoming “fiscal cliff” of sequestration may adjust the levels of funding available to various agencies in January, it maintains the $1.047 trillion limit agreed upon in the August 2011 debt ceiling bargain and is relatively free of riders that could slow its progress in the Senate.

OMB Releases Sequestration Report

During these uncertain economic times, the future of federally funded science remains in question. On Friday, 14 September, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a long awaited report on what the potential impacts of sequestration would look like to both defense and non-defense discretionary programs. The 394 page report breaks down where the cuts will occur at each federal agency. Based upon some assumptions about FY2013 spending, the report calculates a sequestration of 8.2 percent for non-defense discretionary programs and 7.6 percent for non-defense direct spending, and 9.4 percent for defense programs and 10.0 percent for defense direct spending. The preliminary information in the report highlights some programs which are exempt based upon statutory requirements.

Although the report does not explicitly say how sequestration would directly affect science, there are a number of mentions of how non-defense program cuts will hinder economic growth and threaten public safety. For example, these across the board cuts will impede the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect the water and air quality and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be unable to fully respond in catastrophic events.

The document notes that sequestration would be an incredibly harsh policy and that it was never meant to be implemented, but rather meant to force a bipartisan plan for deficit reduction. If Congress fails to reach agreement, these spending cuts are scheduled to start at the beginning of January 2013.

GSA Act of 2012

The “Government Spending Accountability (GSA) Act of 2012”, H.R. 4631, recently passed the House and is now in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.  The legislation currently being reviewed aims to provide increased transparency in government spending and limit agency travel expenses, which may in turn limit federal employees from participating in conferences, including non-governmental scientific meetings like the AGU Fall Meeting.

A very important means by which progress is made in scientific research is in the exchange of ideas that takes place at scientific meetings and conferences.  At these events, scientists from academia, industry, and government, as well as students studying to become scientists, come together to formally present and discuss their research and learn about research by others that may have implications for their work.  This exchange of ideas and review of results is integral to scientific integrity and the scientific process.

However, thanks in large part to the efforts that scientists and scientific societies made to educate policymakers on these unintended consequences of the legislation, language in the “GSA Act of 2012” was changed to make the legislation less harmful to the scientific process and will still allow scientific agencies to perform their mandate.  Agencies are still not allowed to expend more than $500,000 to support a single conference, but agency heads are now permitted to waive the limitation for a specific conference as long as the “expenditure is justified as the most cost-effective option to achieve a compelling purpose.”  This language actually allows the agencies greater freedom to identify priorities in conference spending than amemorandum enacted by the Administration in May 2012 that gives the Office of Management and Budget, and not the agencies themselves, the final call in determining exemptions to the spending cap.

Please contact AGU Public Affairs staff if you have any questions regarding this issue. For assistance on how to find and contact your Congressional Representative, please visit the AGU Science Policy webpage.