Now that the dust has settled after the fiscal cliff deal struck last week, it is time to preview the upcoming debates that will affect the federal budget over the next several years. The fiscal cliff legislation dealt almost exclusively with revenues, and the upcoming debates will focus primarily on cuts to federal spending. Republicans have long sought deep cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, whereas Democrats do their best to protect these programs. Where does that leave science funding? Let’s examine the next three debates that will focus on spending.
The first budget debate will be over the debt ceiling. The amount of debt the U.S. government can incur is restricted by law. If we surpass this limit, also known as the debt ceiling, the U.S. government will default on its debt obligations, which would have an unfavorable effect on the global economy. Thus, whenever we near this limit, Congress raises it to avoid default. It is estimated the debt ceiling will be reached March 1, and Republicans have stated that they will vote for an increase in the debt ceiling only if it is accompanied with significant spending cuts. However, President Obama has said he will not allow the debt ceiling to be used as a bargaining chip in this manner.
While most of the political grandstanding over the next two months will concern the debt ceiling, the second debate over federal spending, sequestration, will be going on in the background. Sequestration will eliminate roughly $110 billion from discretionary spending for fiscal 2013, including a $2.5 billion reduction for the National Institutes of Health and a $560 million reduction for the National Science Foundation. These cuts were supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1 but were postponed until March 1 in the fiscal cliff deal. The two-month postponement will ensure that sequestration is part of the debt ceiling debate. As discussed on the Blotter before, sequestration would be devastating for academic research and individual researchers. However, both parties dislike sequestration and can continue to postpone these cuts until they come up with a deal.
The third budget battle will be over the fiscal 2013 budget. In September, Congress passed a continuing resolution that funds the government at FY12 levels until March 27. At that point, Congress would pass a FY13 budget, pass another continuing resolution or shut down the government. This debate will be similar to the debate we engage in every year over the size of the federal budget and the need to increase funding for scientific research. What sets this March debate apart from previous years’ is that the appetite for budget cuts in the FY13 budget will be determined by the level of budget cuts attained in the debt ceiling and sequestration deals. If the debt ceiling is raised without spending cuts and sequestration is postponed again, there will probably be a strong urge on Capitol Hill to cut back spending in the FY13 budget. On the other hand, if substantial budget cuts are agreed to in either of the previous debates, the urge to trim the budget will be lessened, which may provide a brighter outlook for increasing federal spending on research in the FY13 budget.
These debates all will overlap to a degree, and it is not possible yet to forecast how science funding will fare due to all of these moving parts. To make the best case for funding scientific research, get in contact with your representatives through our Take Action! page, learn about advocacy through our Advocacy Toolkit or email Ben Corb, public affairs director at ASBMB. And, of course, stay tuned to the ASBMB Policy Blotter for the latest on science funding and other science policy issues.