U.S. Spending Deal Spares Satellites, Restoration Programs

Two critical Earth-observing satellite programs—and a major new initiative to restore Gulf of Mexico ecosystems damaged by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—won't be held up by a nasty budget stalemate in Washington.

The U.S. House of Representatives today is expected to approve a temporary $1.047 trillion spending deal that holds most federal agencies to current spending levels for 6 months and bars them from launching any new programs. Despite that de facto freeze, the bill would give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) special permission to ramp up spending on some long-awaited new satellites. And the Department of the Treasury gets the green light to start writing auditing and other rules for handling the up to $20 billion in Gulf Coast restoration funds. The Senate is expected to follow suit next week, and the Obama Administration has said it will sign the legislation.

The temporary budget deal—officially known as a continuing resolution—is the result of election-year gridlock over how much the U.S. government should spend in fiscal year 2013, which begins on 1 October. In theory, each year Congress is supposed to approve 12 annual spending bills which fund government operations. But this year—as is often the case—lawmakers and the White House disagreed on appropriate spending levels. Rather than let the government run out of money, Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to combine all the spending bills into a single package that gives lawmakers more time to reach a final deal.

Overall, the resolution—which lasts until 27 March 2013—gives agencies a tiny 0.612% increase over their current budgets because the government has spent $8 billion less than expected in the current fiscal year. In most cases, however, that slight bump wouldn't be enough to cover major planned increases for particular projects. At NOAA, for example, officials had requested a nearly $200 million increase in 2013 (to $802 million) to keep its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) program on track. And it also needed a major chunk of change, $916 million, to move ahead with its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

Both projects have already experienced delays, and further setbacks threatened to disrupt the future flow of weather and climate data to researchers. So Congress gave NOAA special permission to spend what was needed "to maintain the planned launch schedules" for the orbiters. But it also ordered the agency to complete a report by the end of October that spells out options for reducing the costs of the multibillion dollar programs.

The resolution also gives treasury officials the funds needed to meet a deadline set by the new RESTORE Act, which became law this past July. It requires 80% of any Clean Water Act fines levied for the Deepwater Horizon spill to go to states along the Gulf of Mexico for economic and ecological restoration projects. The bill set a deadline of January 2013 for treasury officials to develop the auditing and accounting systems needed to keep track of the cash, which could start flowing next year. RESTORE Act funds are expected to total between $5 billion and $20 billion.

The continuing resolution is expected to be the only spending bill that Congress approves before it goes into recess again, leaving further negotiations on reducing the trillion-dollar annual budget deficit and even larger federal debt until after the 6 November elections. Any final spending levels for 2013 will depend, in part, on how lawmakers resolve a long-running dispute over extending tax cuts for affluent Americans. In addition, some $110 billion in across-the-board cuts are scheduled to go into effect on 2 January if lawmakers can't reach a long-term budget deal.