Federal round-up: Congress passes continuing resolution, moves on budget resolutions

The month of March has been a busy one in Washington, D.C. On March 1, sequestration went into effect after Congress and the Administration failed to come to agreement on long-term deficit reduction and, two weeks ago, both the House and Senate approved their respective budget resolutions that address overall spending levels for federal government for FY 2014. The House and Senate budget resolutions have widely different goals and assumptions. Numerous observers have expressed doubt that the two plans can be reconciled after each chamber approves its version.  A group of 11 higher education associations, including the Association of America Universities (AAU), sent a letter to all senators on March 22 expressing strong support for the Senate version of the FY14 budget resolution. The letter praised the measure’s potential reversal of the massive, indiscriminate funding cuts in research and student aid imposed by the sequester. It also raised concern about “the possible inclusion of the charitable giving deduction as a means to reduce tax expenditures through limitations on itemized deductions.”

And, finally, Congress took action on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government for the remaining six months of FY 2013, just a week before the current CR expired on March 27. Congress is now enjoying a two-week district/state work period before returning to Washington, D.C. on April 8, two days before President Barack Obama is to release his FY 2014 budget request, and two months later than usual because of the fiscal uncertainty in Congress.


Congress allowed sequestration to take effect on March 1 as the Administration and Congress were unable to come to any agreement on a long-term deficit reduction plan. Now federal agencies will make cuts of about 9 percent for most nondefense discretionary programs and 13 percent for defense programs. This represents $85 billion in spending cuts over the remaining months of FY 2013.  For future years, Congress and the Administration must address an overall reduction of $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and savings over the next decade. For example, Pell grants are exempted from the sequester in FY 2013 but are expected to be affected in future years.  Federal agencies are currently in the process of determining how they will implement their FY 2013 cuts across programs. The UO Office of Research and Innovation has launched a website to track the impacts of the sequester.

When enacted in fall 2011, many lawmakers and others thought that the damaging effects of the sequester would be so egregious—as intended—that Republicans and Democrats would find the means to turn it off. The research community had hoped that Congress would modify the sequester through their work on the CR, and provide some relief to research agencies. Unfortunately, that did not happen and further attempts to modify the sequester for FY 2013 are unlikely.

FY 2013 Spending Package Completed

The House gave final approval to the FY 2013 spending package (HR 993) on March 21st, sending the bill to the President for signature. Passage of the bill was necessary to sustain federal funding through the remaining six months of FY 2013 and avoid a government shutdown after the previous CR expired on March 27. The House vote came the day after the Senate passed the bill by a bipartisan vote of 73 to 26, having reached a deal earlier to limit amendments.

The final FY 2013 funding package included funding and program changes for several research agencies and student aid programs:

  • National Science Foundation (NSF): The bill added $221 million for NSF in FY 2013, raising the agency’s budget to $7.254 billion.  After sequestration, however, the agency’s budget will be $6.884 billion.  FY 2012 funding was about $7.033 billion so the CR represents a reduction in overall funds for NSF.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH was funded through the CR, but an anomaly in the bill increased the agency’s budget by $71 million, before implementation of the $1.6 billion in sequester cuts. NIH funding in FY 2012 was about $31 billion.
  • Department of Energy Office of Science: An anomaly added in the Senate bill cut $44 million from the Department of Energy, before the sequester. That amounted to cuts of $13 million from the DOE Office of Science, $10 million from ARPA-E, $11 million from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and $10 million from Nuclear Energy.  (In FY 2012, the DOE Office of Science budget was $4.84 billion, ARPA-E was $275 million, EERE was $1.8 billion, and Nuclear Energy was $765 million.) The sequester will mandate further cuts for all of these programs.
  • Javits Fellowships:  An anomaly allows continuation awards for Javits Fellowship recipients under the Graduate Assistance of Areas of National Need program, which Congress consolidated last year. The language enables 100 Javits recipients to receive their last year of funding.

During Senate floor consideration of the measure, the chamber also approved an amendment to require the military services to maintain their tuition assistance programs (TAP) for active-duty troops. The Defense Department had proposed to significantly cut funding for the programs to help adjust to budget cuts mandated by the sequester. The Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard had already cut funding for their programs and frozen new applications. This amendment will require those branches of military to reinstate their TAP programs.

Senate Democrats accept modified Coburn NSF amendment to CR

The university research community was deeply disappointed when during floor consideration of the FY13 funding bill, the Senate approved by unanimous consent a compromise version of an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to defund political science research at NSF. Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) had announced the compromise earlier. 

Rather than defund all NSF political science research, the compromise language requires the NSF director to certify that any such research funded by the agency demonstrate national security value or economic benefit. The original amendment proposed by Senators Coburn and John McCain (R-AZ) would have eliminated all funding for political science research at NSF and redirected $7 million of the $10 million total to the National Cancer Institute.

The university research community had worked hard to convince Senators to oppose the Coburn-McCain amendment. UO President Michael Gottfredson and VP for Research Kimberly Andrews Espy wrote Oregon’s senators opposing the Coburn amendment.

The language of the final amendment in the bill is as follows:

From page 189 of the report: SEC. 543. (a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.

(b) The Director of the National Science Foundation shall publish a statement of the reason for each certification made pursuant to subsection (a) on the public website of the National Science Foundation.

From page 199 of the report: c) Any unobligated balances for the Political Science Program described in subsection (a) may be provided for other scientific research and studies that do not duplicate those being funded by other Federal agencies. This division may be cited as the ‘‘Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013’’.

Sources:  AAU and APLU legislative reports