In the federal budgeting world, “regular order” is a meaningful term that is fondly remembered by members of both the Congress and the Executive Branch. Regular order is the established process whereby an Administration submits a budget request in February. Then in about the April timeframe, the House and Senate Appropriations Sub-Committees and then full Committees provide their own budgets. After that, both the full House and full Senate pass their respective versions, which leads to a conference committee that reconciles the differences. Then the compromised appropriations bill is passed by both Houses of Congress and sent to the President to be signed into law. All of this is supposed to happen by October 1st for the start of the new federal fiscal year.
The reason that regular order is fondly remembered is because it has been many years since the process was implemented as designed. Generally, the first two steps occur, but the rest of the process falls by the wayside. The first step is the President’s request is submitted to Congress and for FY18 that occurred on May 23rd. For the Department of Energy, the House completed the first part of the second step when it passed its appropriations bill on July 12th. The Senate Appropriations Committee completed its work on July 20th for the last part of the second step. Unfortunately, this is probably the end of the “regular order” process, but more on that later.
Just like the President’s request and House markup, the news from the Senate for the U.S. exascale efforts is quite encouraging. The most straightforward news is about the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) exascale activities. The Senate provided $161 million to the Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program and $22 million in infrastructure for a total of $193 million to NNSA for exascale. These numbers are the same as both the President’s request and the House mark-up.
The situation for the Office of Science (SC) Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program continues to be complicated. The Senate provided $184 million for the ASCR Exascale Computing Project (ECP). This is a bit lower than the President’s request ($197 million) but higher than the House Appropriations Committee’s mark-up ($170 million). The Senate provided a big boost for both the Oak Ridge and Argonne Leadership Computing Facilities. The appropriations for Oak Ridge was $150 million and for Argonne was $100 million for a total of $250 million. This is significantly higher than the $150 million requested by the President and provided by the House. Finally, the Senate language did not mention the mysterious language that appeared in the request about a possible advanced architecture exascale system at Argonne.
Bottom line — based on the publicly available information, it looks like U.S. is on track to invest somewhere between $509 million (President’s request), $503 million (House mark-up), and $617 million (Senate mark-up) in FY18 in exascale activities. That is great news for the U.S. and its exascale programs. Having such positive numbers from the President, House, and Senate leaves the NNSA and SC programs in a very good position to actually see that level of funding in FY18.
Unfortunately, for FY18 having such relatively uniform numbers between President’s, House’s and Senate’s budgets is the exception rather than the rule. Most of the rest of the Senate Appropriations Committee mark-up of the DOE budget is in wild contrast to the House and President’s request. A great example is the funding for the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). In his request, the President proposed shutting down ARPA-E with zero funding for FY18. The House agreed. However, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave ARPA-E $330 million with explicit directions to keep the agency going. There are plenty of other examples of a huge divergence between the President’s, House’s, and Senate’s view of the FY18 budget. The numbers for the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the budgets are almost a billion dollars apart.
So — what does this mean for the DOE FY18 federal budget? First, it is extremely likely “regular order” is out the window. The process requires a conference committee to make compromises between the House and Senate numbers. When the numbers are so far apart, it is difficult to see how that will be possible. This leads to the question of, how can the budget move forward? Over the last few years, Congress and the Administration have used two mechanisms to bypass the regular budget process. One is known as a Continuing Resolution (CR). Basically, a CR is Congress’ way of admitting they cannot pass a budget and allows the Executive Branch to continue to spend funding at the previous year’s levels. CRs are challenging for Executive Branch agencies because they are not allowed to start new programs. Also, generally, due to an abundance of caution, agencies will only spend funding at the lowest of the three marks (President’s request, House, or Senate). This is particularly difficult, when the lowest of the marks is zero.
After a CR, the second mechanism is known as an omnibus appropriation. This type of appropriations is a very large “catch all” bill that is drafted by the House and Senate. Usually, omnibus bills appear after one or two CRs when it becomes clear that it will be impossible to pass a budget. Omnibus appropriations are used on an emergency basis, under the threat of a government shutdown and the details usually get little or no debate. However, given the challenges of the FY18 budget, there is already some discussion of jumping ahead right to Congress passing a series of mini-omnibuses (aka minibuses).
For exascale, whether it is regular order, a CR, or an omnibus, things are looking very good. Maintaining and extending U.S. leadership for exascale computing is clearly an issue that all parties agree deserves robust funding. Prospects for FY18 look very good. Of course, the DOE challenge then turns from getting funding to using it well.
About the Author
Alex Larzelere is a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, the president of Larzelere & Associates Consulting and HPCwire’s policy editor. He is currently a technologist, speaker and author on a number of disruptive technologies that include: advanced modeling and simulation; high performance computing; artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things; and additive manufacturing. Alex’s career has included time in federal service (working closely with DOE national labs), private industry, and as founder of a small business. Throughout that time, he led programs that implemented the use of cutting edge advanced computing technologies to enable high resolution, multi-physics simulations of complex physical systems. Alex is the author of “Delivering Insight: The History of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI).”