October 1st marks the start of the U.S. government's 2015 fiscal year, but as celebrations for the fiscal new year die down NASA’s budget is still in limbo. Congress adjourned last week to campaign for re-election without passing a budget for any federal agency. They return to work in November.
Before leaving, Congress did pass a stopgap spending bill (H.J.Res. 124 for those of you keeping track at home) that extends 2014 funding levels for the government through December 11th. The President signed this into law last week. Without a bill appropriating funds from the U.S. treasury, the government would have shut down like it did when we rolled in the 2014 fiscal year.
Under the stopgap measure (referred to as a continuing resolution or CR for short) NASA can continue to spend money on existing programs, but is forbidden from starting any new ones. And while the law states NASA can spend at 2014 levels, generally the White House’s Office of Management and Budget limits spending to the lowest level of all proposed funding bills for FY2015.
There are currently two bills in Congress that would fund NASA in 2015, one in the Senate [pdf] and one in the House [pdf]. While they both agree on the same (larger!) top-line number for NASA, they do differ in how that money is spread around within the space agency (for a detailed comparison of all the current budgets, Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online has a complete breakdown in a pdf).
For our main focus—planetary science—the President’s requested level for 2015 is the lowest of all budget proposals at $1.28 billion and spending during the continuing resolution will likely be limited to this level. This is only for a few months, however, and Jim Green, the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, has stated that this lower level is unlikely to disrupt anything within the program. The Opportunity rover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will continue. A longer CR may have longer impacts, though, and the key is for Congress to pass their improved budget for NASA as quickly as possible when they return.
But the December 11th deadline gives Congress only a month to work out their differences and pass an omnibus spending bill, which is essentially one mega bill that funds the entire government, as opposed to the standard 12 individual appropriations bills covering different areas of federal spending. The House has passed seven spending bills, the Senate, zero. There is a lot of work to do.
The dynamics of Congress could be greatly altered by the results of the November elections. If Republicans gain control of the Senate, there will be pressure to extend the CR into January so a Republican-led Senate and House could exercise more influence on spending. If Democrats retain their majority, an omnibus in December seems more likely.
The fiscal new year continues the trend of uncertainty faced by NASA, but at least their doors are open, unlike last year.