December 12, 2014

FY15 Omnibus – A Close Shave

Posted by Nick Saab

Written by Nick Saab, Public Affairs Specialist, with assistance from Erik Hankin, Public Affairs Specialist, and Elizabeth Landau, Public Affairs Manager

For the past several months those inside the beltway have nervously watched with bated breath as House and Senate appropriators quietly negotiated a spending bill that funds the government through the remainder of fiscal year 2015 (FY15). Late Tuesday night, the long-awaited bill was unveiled.

The 1,603 page bill is enormous – which is unsurprising since it provides funding for every part of the federal government. A good rundown of the long and bumpy road that got us here can be found in a couple of our previous blog posts – “Dysfunction Junction” and “Duck Season Now Open.”

Overall, one word to describe the feelings of those in the Public Affairs office is “relieved.” With recent science funding woes such as sequestration and government shutdowns, having reliable funding through the end of FY15 is reassuring, and while most budget items are not up significantly, there are also very few deep cuts to science programs. That being said, the bill only just squeaked through passage in the House, and as of the posting of this blog, awaits a final vote in the Senate.

National Science Foundation
Overall, NSF fared relatively well in the spending bill despite some of the issues it’s faced with House Republicans this past year. The agency receives $7.3 billion – a $172 million dollar increase of the previous year. Of that increase the Research and Required Activities account received the bulk with a bump of $124.7 million or 2.15 percent over FY14.

National Aeronautic and Space Administration
House and Senate appropriators agreed to $17.9 billion for the agency in their failed spending bills earlier this year. That bipartisan amount was already $550 million above the president’s request. Surprisingly, the omnibus provides $18.01 billion – $30 million above House and Senate bills and an astronomical (get it?) $523 million above what President Obama requested.

Within the NASA Science Mission Directorate, the Planetary Science account did very well, receiving $1.43 billion, instead of $1.28 billion that was in the president’s request, including a provision directing “not less than” $100 million for a Europa mission. Earth Science receives a cut from FY14 levels, but is still above the president’s request of $1.770 billion. While initially a red flag, the cut to Earth Science is actually in-line with several large satellites (Icesat-2 and SMAP) ramping down as they reach the end of their peak investment stages.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The omnibus provides a healthy increase to NOAA’s top-line funding, totaling $118 million or 2.24%. No account within it’s budget received a cut, with increases to the following: National Weather Service (NWS) – $20.21 million, or 1.89 percent; Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR) – $19.28 or 4.51 percent; National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – $9.58 million or 1.18 percent; National Ocean Service (NOS) – $10.11 million or 2.13 percent; and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) – $140.33 or 6.73 percent.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALanguage addressing the some of the issues with NOAA’s development of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) was also added. In it, NOAA is urged to take “aggressive steps to address the fragility of of the JPSS” and provide updates to House and Senate Appropriations Committees regarding the possibility of gaps in weather coverage. The report also urges NOAA to “examine carefully” overhead costs, ways to maximize efficiency, and eliminate redundancies. While fairly pointed, House and Senate appropriators have been very skeptical towards NOAA’s cost estimates and development timeline of JPSS.

United States Geological Survey
Compared to FY14, USGS faired well in the FY15 spending bill, but not nearly as well as it did in the president’s FY15 budget request. The omnibus provides $1.045 billion for the Survey, a 1.2 percent increase compared to FY14, but also 2.7 percent less than the President’s request.

Ecosystems, Climate and Land Use Change, and Natural Hazards all received increases above inflation, while Core Science Systems and Science support received a decrease from FY14 funding levels (-1.5 percent and -4.6 percent, respectively).

In addition to the funding levels in the appropriations bill, additional policies can be included as “riders” in the bill:

Government employee attendance at scientific and technical meetings
Ever since the General Services Administration (GSA) scandal back in 2011, Congress has kept a watchful eye on federal employee attendance at conferences. This has impacted scientific and technical meetings attended by individuals from U.S. science agencies. In response to the GSA debacle, the White House’ Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance for every federal agency, setting limits for how much can be spent on conference sponsorship, attendance by individuals, and the number of individuals who can attend. Recent efforts have been underway to codify the OMB language into law and add onerous reporting requirements, further negatively impacting science agencies – and science writ-large.

One fear among the science policy community was that these efforts would make their way into a must-pass omnibus. Due to the efforts by AGU and other science and engineering associations, that was not the case. However, one piece of language that has perpetually appeared in major funding bills restricting the number of government employees that can attend international conferences remains in the legislation. Enabling all scientists to attend scientific and technical meetings that form an integral piece of their work, without overly burdensome reporting or delays, remains one of our top priorities.

Looking At The Glass Half Full
When talking about budgets, it’s important to keep in mind the change in underlying inflation. The Federal Reserve projects inflation for 2015 to be between 1.6 and 1.9 percent, resulting in many of the budget increases being very minor or practically flat. However, in an era where many agencies and programs across the federal government are on the chopping block and have indeed seen cuts in the omnibus, the increases in science budgets should be viewed in a positive light.

Since the bill is not technically law until passage in the Senate and signing by the President, anything could happen. But should it pass (and we expect it will), science can breathe a small sigh of relief. At least until Congress starts talking about FY16.