In the final days of the 114th Congress, lawmakers are preparing to formally delay the approval of the U.S. government’s budget until spring of next year.
This legislation, known as a “continuing resolution” or “CR” for short, extends current funding levels for all government programs until April 28th, 2017. The government has already been operating under a short-term CR since October 1st (the start of the fiscal year) which is set to expire on Friday.
While a CR sounds like minimal disruption, it actually presents major headaches for NASA and the implementation of its major programs. On paper, a CR extends fiscal year (FY) 2016 funding levels. These are pretty good for most of NASA. But in practice, throughout the duration of the CR, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will limit expenditures for government programs to match the lowest-possible budget level proposed by the Senate, House, and the White House for FY 2017.
Take, for example, Planetary Science:
FY 2016 Actual
President FY 2017
Senate FY 2017
House FY 2017
Because the Senate proposed the lowest funding level to Planetary Science in FY 2017, and because OMB has no idea what budget will finally pass at the end of April, they will likely limit spending for this program to a rate commensurate with the Senate’s funding proposal, despite receiving significantly more funding in FY 2016. Why? Think of it this way: if OMB allowed the program to spend at the FY16 rate, but the final budget approved in April used the Senate’s funding level, NASA would have to scramble to cut those hundreds of millions of dollars in the final few months of the fiscal year. This is a much harder pill to swallow than the opposite situation: receiving additional funding mid-way through the fiscal year.
The fact remains, however, that a CR through April 2017 could effectively implement a $275 million cut to NASA’s planetary science program until final budget action is taken. This hampers NASA’s ability to meet the recommendations of the National Academies’ Decadal Survey for Planetary Science, the document Congress has instructed NASA to use as its governing directive for planning the nation’s exploration of the solar system. A CR could delay or prevent the selection of two new Discovery-class missions. It may delay the selection of a new New Frontiers-class mission. It will also make life difficult for Mars 2020—already in development—and programs in formulation such the Europa orbiter, both of which needed (planned) budget increases as they build their teams and progress through their development.
This same problem applies to many NASA programs, particularly ones that have a strong disagreement between Congressional funding levels and White House funding requests. For example, here are the funding differences for the major human spaceflight programs at NASA:
FY 2016 Actual
Because the President’s FY 2017 request was far less than the congressional appropriation in 2016, you might think that the SLS and Orion programs would also receive a significant cut throughout the duration of the CR. You would be wrong. That’s because Congress wrote in a specific exception for SLS/Orion into the text of the continuing resolution:
SEC 153. Amounts made available by section 101 for ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration—Exploration’ may be apportioned up to the rate for operations necessary to maintain the planned launch capability schedules for the Space Launch System launch vehicle, Exploration Ground Systems, and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle programs.
This text, known in legislative terms as an “aberration,” provides guidance to OMB to allow these programs to continue spending at a higher rate with the implication that Congress will come through and provide final appropriations similar to the FY16 numbers. This ideally keeps the SLS/Orion program on track for the first uncrewed launch in 2018, and first crewed launch in 2021, barring any unexpected technical issues.
There are many exceptions in the CR for large development programs like this, mainly for defense programs. NOAA’s new weather satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System, also get an exception, but no other NASA program does.
A CR is an unfortunate development, but not entirely unexpected. Presidential transitions tend to disrupt the flow of legislation until the system re-orients to the new political paradigm. We can hope that Congress will pass a budget in April, despite a significant workload for cabinet confirmations, the legislative agenda in Trump’s first 100 days, a potential supreme court nomination, not to mention the FY2018 budget, which is released in the March time frame.