Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriations and Government Shutdown
As APS News was preparing to go to press, federal agencies were just getting back to normal. The shutdown occurred when House Republicans insisted that a continuing resolution to keep the government funded be paired with modifications to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The stage had been set months earlier when the House and Senate had been unable to agree on fiscal year 2014 spending levels. The Senate Budget Resolution contained $1,057 billion in total budget authority, while the House Resolution contained only $967 billion in total budget authority. Consequently, the new fiscal year began without a single appropriation bill having been passed.
Although the Democratically controlled Senate had reluctantly agreed to a total spending level of $986 billion–which incorporated sequestration levels–Tea Party House Republicans demanded defunding, delaying or significantly altering the President's signature health legislation as a requisite for a continuing resolution. When the White House and the Senate rejected those demands, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) refused to allow the House to vote on a "clean" funding bill, government agencies were forced to shut down.
All non-essential government employees were furloughed, and non-essential activities were curtailed. Furloughs affected more than 95 percent of employees at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Institutes of Health shut down all of their laboratories. The National Science Foundation shut down "FastLane," preventing scientists from submitting new grant proposals or fellowship applications. Although many Department of Energy user facilities had enough cash on hand to continue operations for a limited time, the agency was forced to curtail many other discretionary activities, including travel and purchases.
Even where research programs were functioning under prior grants, many were hampered by the inability of scientists to access data collected by government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Agriculture.
As was the case during last year's "Fiscal Cliff," a continuing resolution was not the only issue. The Treasury Department had indicated that on October 17 or within a few weeks thereafter the nation would reach a debt ceiling. Congressional failure to raise the ceiling would force the United States to default on its obligations. With economists warning of worldwide financial repercussions, Senate Democrats and Republicans were striving to achieve at least a short-term bipartisan agreement to avert the predicted upheaval, although House acceptance remained in doubt.
But even though the House accepted a Senate agreement, the consequence will be to postpone resolution of significant disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over defense and non-defense discretionary spending, mandatory spending, taxation and healthcare. It will simply set the stage for another major battle over the nation's fiscal future a few months down the road.
The Helium Stewardship Act
After nearly two years of intensive effort by the end user community, including the APS, the President signed H.R. 527, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, into law on October 2. P.L. 113-040 ensures that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can continue to supply crude helium to the market without interruption. It creates an auction process to determine a market price and to incentivize the private sector to develop additional helium reserves. Moreover, it ensures a steady supply of helium to the research community. Finally, it reserves 3 billion cubic feet of crude helium for federal use; this includes use by federal agencies and federal grantees through the In Kind program.
While the APS was successful in having Congress include language for membrane R&D to improve helium capture at the wellhead, the future of supply to federal users and federal grantees after the BLM leaves the helium business is not yet clear.
Washington Office Activities
APS member Kenneth Rudinger, a PhD graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's physics department, authored an op-ed on Sept. 26 in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Titled "Government shutdown threatens scientific research," the piece urges Congress to avoid a shutdown and fully fund scientific research.
As a follow-up to the op-ed, Rudinger was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio about the effect the government shutdown is having on scientific research.
Michael S. Lubell, APS director of public affairs, wrote an op-ed for Roll Call on Sept. 12 titled "Cutting Science Funding Starves Future Generations." The column points out that current federal science budgets are "undermining the foundation of future economic growth, which in no small measure depends on science, education and infrastructure."
POPA considered and approved a report titled Renewing Licenses for the Nation's Nuclear Power Plants at its October meeting. The report has been approved by the APS Executive Board and will be posted to the POPA Reports website in the coming weeks.
The proposed APS Statement on K-12 physics education remains under review and will be re-considered by the APS Executive Board and Council later this year following edits informed by APS member commentary. A second statement on undergraduate research has undergone Council commentary and will be sent to the APS Executive Board for review and approval later this year. APS Statements on the Civic Engagement of Scientists and on Joint Diversity are being reviewed for modification.
A subcommittee has been formed to vet a proposal for a joint international workshop on tactical nuclear weapons, with sister physics societies in Europe. The idea for an international workshop stemmed from a US workshop on the subject, held jointly by APS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Climate Change Statement Review Subcommittee continues its review of the APS Statement on Climate Change. A workshop is planned for early 2014.
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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella