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Shutdown Appears Imminent, Barring Last-Minute Fix

Late last week the Senate, as expected, passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government through November 15, stripping House language to defund health care reform in the process. But over the weekend the House passed another CR to delay health reform; the CR now moves back to the Senate for reconsideration. There is certainly still time for all involved parties to reach an agreement that keeps government agencies in operation, but that time is now measured in hours rather than days. Should the two chambers fail to reach an agreeable solution, the federal government will shut down at midnight, the start of the new fiscal year.

Annual appropriations typically extend to the end of the fiscal year, September 30, and normally Congress puts new appropriations in place to take effect starting October 1. A shutdown simply means that previously-appropriated budget authority has expired, and Congress has failed to provide new authority for the new fiscal year (which is what this summer's appropriations cycle should have resulted in), and so programs and employees that take their funding from this annual cycle are furloughed or cease operations.

A number of programs and employees are exempt from this disruption in funding. For instance, some agencies are funded through user fees or mandatory funding streams, which are not subjected to the annual appropriations cycle. A substantial portion of the work at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services falls into this category and will continue; ironically, much of this work is in support of health reform activities under the Affordable Care Act. Other employees and programs may be exempt in order to ensure the safety of human life or protection of property; this would include select NASA activities in support of the International Space Station (to protect the astronauts aboard) and other satellite missions currently in the operation phase (to protect the satellites and associated data as government property). Still others could receive an exemption to ensure an orderly shutdown of certain non-exempt activities.

Unfortunately for the federal science enterprise, the vast majority of staff and programs are in the "non-exempt" category, meaning they're directly affected by the expiration of budget authority. This doesn't necessarily mean all government-funded R&D will cease, however, as extramural researchers who do not require immediate intervention or oversight from civil servants, or are not waiting on disbursal of actual funding, may continue their work. It's a different story for most intramural research activities, of course, though select data management and infrastructure sustenance activities may also be exempt.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has collected most current agency contingency plans here, and direct links to a few key R&D agency plans are below.

  •  Dept. of Health and Human Services (NIH, CDC and others): 73 percent of NIH staff would be furloughed. Some of those that remain would continue providing in-patent and out-patient care for current patients of the NIH Clinical Center, though no new patients would be accepted. NIH staff would also maintain their animal stock, research infrastructure, and data. Most FDA monitoring programs and CDC outbreak programs, including its seasonal influenza work, would cease.
  • Dept. of Energy: There are exceedingly few employments in most DOE R&D offices that would be exempt from the funding disruption. Literally a handful of DOE staff would remain at the Office of Science, and at the offices for efficiency, renewables, nuclear power, and fossil energy; none would remain at ARPA-E (though contractor entities - like the national labs - would be shielded for a time given other resources and budget authority balances they can draw upon). Unsurprisingly given the agency's mission, a few hundred staff within the National Nuclear Security Administration are exempt.
  • National Science Foundation: Virtually all staff is to be furloughed, with those remaining responsible for the protection of life and property. NSF will be sending notices to awardees informing them that payments won't be made during the disruption, but that research that doesn't require federal employee intervention may proceed.
  • NASA: As mentioned above, ISS support and operational satellite missions will continue, but pre-launch development activities will mostly halt. As with other agencies, no new contracts or grants will be issued, and apparently citizens will not have "access to the NASA website."
  • USDA Research, Education and Economics: Just about all staff at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service would be furloughed, though the Agricultural Research Service would retain several hundred staff to safeguard research animal populations, IT infrastructure, and other assets.


Matt Hourihan


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