Summertime in Washington: Some Unexpected Advanced Computing News

By Alex R. Larzelere

August 8, 2018

HPCwire Policy Editor Alex Larzelere, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, offers his insider take on the status of the FY19 exascale budget, a new White House R&D priority memo, and the quantum computing legislation making its way through Congress.

Summertime in Washington DC is known for its heat and humidity. That is why most people get away to either the mountains or the seashore and things slow down. However, surprisingly, this summer there are a number of interesting advanced computing news items. Here is an update on a few of them.

When we last left the story of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Exascale Computing Initiative (ECI) Fiscal Year 2019 (FY-19) budget, things were looking very good. The Congressional appropriations process was working as it was designed. However, by the end of the month, things started falling apart. In terms of the funding levels, things remain very encouraging. However, recent events in Washington are making the timing of the availability of those funds very uncertain. As of June, the Energy and Water Appropriations bill was on track and following regular order. The appropriation subcommittees of both the House and Senate had written and passed their versions of the bill. The bills were then passed by both the full appropriations committees and even made it onto the floors of the House and Senate where the full membership voted on and passed the two different versions.

Naming of members of a joint House/Senate conference committee was the next step in the process and that was done. It was even reported that staffers were actively working on finding compromises that would allow the creation of a final joint version of the bill. Once the joint version was passed by both Houses of Congress, which is pretty much a formality at that point, the bill would be sent to the President where it, when signed, would become law. With that, the exascale budget would be in place for the DOE’s Office of Science and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to execute the program at the start of the FY. In other words, “regular order.” We got so close.

Unfortunately, as June went by, the appropriation process started to breakdown. Up until then, the overall situation looked good. The full House had passed five of the 12 appropriations bills and the Senate passed four of them. This had not been seen in years. Conference committees were being formed and there was even talk about keeping the Senate in session in August so they could finish their work. There was real hope the Congress would be able to complete the process by the end of the FY that occurs on September 30th. However, on June 27th, the beginning of the end of regular order started. On that day, Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced that he was retiring. As a result, all air was immediately sucked out of the regular order appropriations process.

Not to worry! Even though regular order was out the window, Congress still has the responsibility to fund the government, so they shifted the process to Plan B. Rather than passing individual funding bills, the leadership of the House and Senate decided to lump three or four of the appropriations bills together into a funding package known as a “minibus.” This is a variation of the term “omnibus” where all 12 of the appropriations bills are lump together in one massive funding package. The “minibus” idea looks good and will likely be the vehicle used to turn some of the appropriation bills into law. However, that may not happen with the Energy and Water bill that contains the DOE exascale funding. The reason for this is because of a number of controversial measures in the House version that are not in the Senate version. One of those, has to do with the funding for the restart of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project. Bottom line – it seems that the Energy and Water bill is stalled for the meantime.

There is now the matter of the Senate confirmation of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as the replacement for Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. President Trump and Senate Majority Leader McConnell both would like to see that happen before the Supreme Court session starts on the first Monday of October. There is a great deal of work involved with meeting the nominee, reviewing paper records, and holding hearings before voting on confirmation. This will obviously take priority over the FY-19 funding measures. And just to complicate things even further, President Trump is also threatening to shut down the federal government on October 1st if he does not get funding for the southern border protection wall. Exactly what all of these other developments means for the U.S. exascale program is not clear but it certainly serves to only further muddy the water. Once again, we were so close for FY-19.

Despite the Congressional hold ups, the preparation process for the annual federal budget marches relentlessly on. As soon as agencies write one budget, they begin it again for the next year’s budget. Inside of the agencies, such as the DOE, the staffs are already well into preparing the FY-20 budget proposal that will be submitted by the President to Congress in February 2019. Agency staffers already have their rough target numbers and have already taken several cuts on what will be proposed. The summer is the time for refinement of those draft budgets and making adjustments to accommodate White House priorities.

One mechanism to communicate those adjustments, is a memo released every year from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that outlines the administration’s research and development (R&D) priorities. This year, that memo was publicly released on July 31st and provides some interesting insights (read it here). R&D topics covered in the memo include: National Security; Advanced Computing; Connectivity and Autonomy; Manufacturing; Space Exploration and Commercialization; Energy Dominance; Medical Innovation; and Agriculture. The Advanced Computing emphasis area is further divided into quantum computing, artificial intelligence and strategic computing. Specific strategic computing objectives include supporting a national high performance computing ecosystem and exploring novel pathways for advanced computing in the “post-Moore’s law” era. The OMB and OSTP memo seems to be very supportive of the DOE ongoing advanced computing programs, including ECI.

The last bit of summertime advanced computing news happened on June 26th. On that day two pieces of legislation on the topic of quantum computing were introduced in Congress. In the Senate, the bill is known the National Quantum Initiative Act (S.3143). The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation reviewed the proposed legislation and ordered it to be reported to the full Senate later this year. On the House side, the companion bill is also known as the National Quantum Initiative Act (H.R.6227) and will be reported to the full House. The two bills are similar but not exactly the same. Both bills specify funding from 2019 to 2023 of $400 million for the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST), $250 million for the National Science Foundation (NSF), and an unspecified smaller amount for a Coordination Office. However, the House bill also specifies an additional $625 million for the DOE to establish up to five National Quantum Information Science Research Centers. Both bills have bipartisan support and will likely pass after the differences are reconciled.

Many years ago, the British government considered it hazardous duty for its diplomats to be stationed in what was then, literally swampy, Washington, DC, because of the hot and humid summers. Because of air conditioning and some strategic landfills, life in Washington in the summer is much better. However, the city definitely slows down. The unexpected advanced computing news is not necessarily good, but may not be all that bad. It is not clear how the FY-19 exascale funding timing will be resolved, but it is good to see that the levels remain strong. The FY-20 process is well underway behind the agency curtains. The recently released R&D priorities memo is an encouraging sign that the process will produce good results for advanced computing. Finally, the recent quantum computing legislation activities in Congress bodes well for the U.S. to continue to play a leadership role for the technology. Hopefully, we will now get a chance to catch our collective breaths for what will undoubtedly be a crazy fall (and I did not even mention the impact of the mid-term elections). At least it will be cooler when it happens.

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).”

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